Will I remember when I’m forty-eight what I remember now when I’m fourteen?
Fourteen is in bed on a school night; the clock has inched past ten. He’s called me away from the editing I’m doing with “Tuck,” neither question nor demand. The voice that might be low one moment and squeaky the next, carries through our quiet house without ruffling the other sleepers, Eleven and Eighty-Nine. “I’ll be right there,” I call-whisper back.
On his bed are a wedge-shaped reading pillow, a body pillow, a large square pillow, two sleeping pillows, the nearly four-foot stuffed bear he received when he had heart surgery at nine months old, and about 10 other stuffed animals we call, in family-lingo, “rodents.” The most well-loved of these is Tigee, a gift from a playgroup pal on his third birthday right before his sister arrived.
I ruffle then settle the covers and think again that this single bed no longer fits him and all of his sleeping companions, but he snuggles in against them and claims he likes it this way. He looks up at me, arms around Tigee, sleep lowering his lashes against his cheeks, “Story?”
“Story,” I reply. “About what?”
He’s been asking me for the last few nights for stories from specific times in my past. A high school friend story, one night, something from college another. “Something you remember from teaching English?”
I tell him about teaching Rivethead, a memoir by Ben Hamper, to a particularly lively, bright group of journalism students at Suffolk Community College on Long Island. The class was required—Contemporary Nonfiction Literature—for everyone in the journalism program. It had been taught by the same professor for a number of years, but somehow ended up on my teaching schedule my second semester there. I took one look at the existing syllabus and knew I was going to teach it completely differently, selecting my favorite nonfiction novels and memoirs from my recent graduate school days. The set-up of the class was simple: the students would read a stack of these books, would write twice-weekly journal entries, would write four out-of-class assignments, and would take the best final I ever constructed.
Rivethead is about working in a car factory in Detroit. The author is the son of a factory worker who sees working on the line as his destiny, and yet it ruins him, physically, emotionally, mentally. There are pills and alcoholic stints and injuries leading to time off, reassignments, and layoffs. In spite of apparently hating what he does, each time Hamper goes back to work on the line, he schemes to get back to the rivet gun. He is once and forever a “rivethead.”
In spite of the fact that many of my students were first-generation college students, the children of factory workers and service people, and that some had picked up summer jobs in Long Island institutions like the Estée Lauder factory and the IRS, they professed not to connect to Hamper and how he felt about factory work. Why is it so hard? What makes it boring? And if it is those things, why does he care about getting back to it? They were mired, in our discussion, in their critique of his resistance to his job and it was keeping them from understanding the the way the story portrays identity.
Searching for a lesson plan just before class, I seized the recycling bin and carried it with me. I asked the students create two lines of desks. Each seated student was responsible for one fold of a paper airplane. The line anchors had to start a new airplane down the line every few seconds. Students at the end of the line quality-tested the products, zooming paper airplanes around the room, many faulty and crashing to the floor. More students were supposed to try to fix these. Students in control walked the line to keep the whole thing moving.
Our paper airplane factory only ran for fifteen or twenty minutes, was rowdy, and netted very few truly functional planes. But it made the point that line work is demanding, boring, and somehow a fellowship and exhilarating all at the same time. Fresh from their experience, the students bought new understanding to the book and our discussion.
“Would I like Rivethead?” Fourteen brings me back to his room.
“You would,” I hesitate a little. There are a lot of drugs in the book, violence, bad language. It was a younger, non-parental me that didn’t flinch when I taught the book. Sharing it with my son? It’s still surprising what he knows about the world … “Yes,” I decide, “you should read it.”
It’s his next question that truly unsettles my brain, “Will I remember when I’m forty-eight what I remember now when I’m fourteen?”
He’s recently finished a book review for his English teacher of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer, a book on my to-read list because of the wonderful truth he told me from the book: Rather than be frustrated by what we don’t remember, we should be amazed by all of the things our brains do remember—to make and eat breakfast, how to get home, what to purchase at the grocery store. I love this idea—a celebration of our strengths rather than a castigation for forgetting an appointment or another lapse.
“I think,” I tell Fourteen standing, kissing his forehead, and smoothing his hair, “that different things will sift to the fore of your memory—we don’t readily remember all at forty-eight that we do at fourteen. But I believe it’s all in there—you can access those memories if you grow quiet enough or if something triggers them.” He nods then, sleep overtaking and I switch off the light and step into the hall.
Sometimes memory triggers will start a whole swirl. I hadn’t thought about the airplane assembly line in years, but just a day or so before Fourteen asked for a teaching story, a student from that very class reached out over the Internet to find me. She was hoping that I would remember her and a paper she wrote—to my surprise I remembered both. A trip to the basement to see if by any chance I did still have the paper, brought forth a tumble of names and memories and a look back at who I was at twenty-five. My first response—I was a naïve kid who had no business playing with people’s lives—softened as I thought about the writers I taught and the help I gave, part academic, part moral support, part life coaching. I didn’t have all of the answers, but I started thinking I was on the right course more often than not. The night I told the airplane story, back at my editing, I read another email response from the former student that confirmed my thought-memory process: If you ever wonder if you’ve made a positive change in someone’s life, please believe you do because you were the one who really got the ball rolling for me!
It’s then that I want to wake Fourteen and answer his question differently: The most important memories are not necessarily memories of the actual events in your life, but memories that come from knowing that each moment of every day you did the best you could with what you had.
March 26 marked the third anniversary of Overneath It All, and March 30 is the new pink moon, one of my favorites. Today I post right in-between these Overneath It All touchstones on another important-to-me day, the two-and-a-half year birthday of the yoga studio. I like the fact that my so-called youngest baby gave me the gift of breathing room to write. Thank you, as ever & always, for coming along with me on this journey, Rxo