I used to have a memory that everyone else relied on. Want to know what you were doing five years ago today? If I was there, I’ll know. Can’t remember the name of your first grade teacher? If I was in your class (or just the same school) I can tell you. It’s always been part of my identity: The Girl Who Remembered Everything. But a couple days ago, I realized that my talent might be on the wane.
I was done teaching classes for the weekend and wholly focused on escaping to the parking lot. So the student was practically on top of me before I realized that she’d been desperately trying to get my attention. “How ARE you?” she asked excitedly.
“I’m good,” I replied, frantically searching my brain for her name, the semester she might have been in my class, anything. She didn’t even look familiar to me.
She threw her arms around me unexpectedly, and I found my nose pressed awkwardly into her armpit, as she was a good six inches taller than me. “I wanted to thank you so much for all of your help, especially about the advice on how to get an internship,” she continued. “I’ll never forget it.”
Right. And I once believed that I’d never forget any of my students’ names.
After that encounter, I started trying to remember when my memory first started to let me down, but that’s a bit like trying to talk about loneliness with other lonely people.
It probably started with pregnancy, which isn’t surprising. When your body is busy making a human, there often isn’t a lot of brain cells to spare on silly things like forming coherent sentences. As an English teacher, though, it’s somewhat less than ideal to stand up at the front of the class to give a lesson on writing and style while visibly struggling to find words that make sense.
Even three years after my last pregnancy, my mind remains slippery so it’s probably just a byproduct of getting older. No problem: I’ve developed a process to help me keep track of my life. If a thought pops into my head, I’ve accepted that I won’t remember it later so I have to record it right now. I keep notebooks by my bed in case I wake up with brilliant blog ideas, I email myself lesson plans, and I’ve even been known to jump out of the shower to text myself something that couldn’t wait.
Note to self: Can I leave myself voicemails? If so, my commute to work would become noticeably shorter if I didn’t have to keep pulling off to the side of the road to write out grocery lists. There, I even leave notes to myself on this blog.
These short-term memory lapses don’t really bother me, though. It’s the idea that from here on out, I may start forgetting large chunks of my life that’s worrisome. Most people don’t seem to see this as an issue. “It wasn’t that great the first time around,” they’ll joke. And maybe that’s true, to a point. We’d all be better off forgetting the moment we realized our crush didn’t reciprocate our undying love or that time we peed our pants at a sleepover while watching a horror movie. But even so, the real scary story is still 50 First Dates. After all, who are we without an anchor to our respective pasts?
Also, losing my memory worries me because what if I get sent back in time to a previous point in my life? If I’m suddenly back in high school, everyone will know something’s up if I can’t remember what class I had 2nd hour in 11th grade or my locker combination. How would I ever going to fit in long enough to change the past and save the world? These are the things that keep me up at night. I should probably also stop watching so much TV.
Of course, barring time travel, I have to remember that we’re living in the so-called Information Age now, so a good memory isn’t as important as it used to be. These days, recalling quick facts is only lauded if you’re a contestant on Jeopardy. Otherwise, there’s no point to fighting about whether or not World War II started in 1940. (Look it up for yourself. I’ll wait.)
We can do this with our personal memories too. Who cares if I can’t recall what I did five years ago today? Thanks to Mark Zuckerberg, I can look at my On This Day feature on Facebook and it all comes back to me. Who cares if I don’t remember what I ate for dinner last month when I can easily scroll back to see the picture I took of it. But really, I do look at my students and wonder how they will remember their lives and if they will filter it through social media. Is it a real memory if you need a pictorial diary to remind you?
There seems to be a generational divide happening with this, too. Gen X-ers are becoming as crotchety about this issue as their parents were about grunge music, and they would be the first ones to loudly proclaim that when they were kids, they had to memorize everything and it made them better people because of it. They didn’t have fancy calculators that stored formulas and proofs for them; if they wanted to graph that parabola, they had to figure it out themselves, dammit. And if they wanted to call their friends, they had to punch out those seven numbers by heart on an actual telephone while they were barefoot in two feet of snow, uphill both ways. At least, I think I remember that’s how the saying goes. I’ll have to remind myself to Google it later.
Of course, Millennials will turn around and point out that not needing to memorize useless facts frees their minds up so they can remember important things. Like the names of people who are suddenly hugging them in the hallway. And sure, it’s encouraging if my students remember how to format and cite their essays correctly once they leave my class, but they can always find that information later if they need it. But it’s next to impossible to remember someone’s name when they are waving you down and there’s nowhere to hide. So maybe they’ve got it right after all.
And I just remembered: Brittany. My previous student’s name is Brittany. I feel so much better now.