On Memorization and Domestic Violence

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, August 29, 2007 | ,

During that long, drunken summer after graduation, I couldn't get a decent job with my freshly-minted English and Latin degrees, so I worked a crappy job and volunteered several mornings a week in the local prosecutor's domestic violence unit, doing data entry of victim intake statements. There were various boxes to check in the primitive database software: "Hospitalization required? Visible bruising? Lacerations?" After categorizing the injuries, I would next type in the victim's description of the INCIDENT. Then I moved on to the next victim. Three or four hours of that, and I was ready to swing around streetlamps, click my heels and splash through fountains all while singing in French about l'amour, I was just so filled with the soul-crushing spirit of Love.

One morning a paper slid across my desk and I recognized the name of the alleged abuser. It was one of my former professors. According to the sheet, he was still in jail, and wouldn't be released until the following day. I pictured him sitting in a cell surrounded by thugs, wearing prison slippers. He was well-known as the diminutive goateed professor who would burst into tears on the first day of Introduction to Literature while reciting some Yeats poem from memory.

Now, I've cried while reading Yeats, but only because I had to keep reading Yeats. As uncomfortable as his tearful recitals made me and my fellow students, I still think about this professor and what he taught me. I think of him every time my daughter "reads" me a book, sitting there in my lap with some shabbily-illustrated ten cent tome picked up at a thrift store and read to her a few dozen times, and, like most kids her age, she reveals she has memorized the entire thing. The wifebeating professor was mad for memorization. He spent entire lectures railing against the ever-worsening American education system and its inability to produce students who'd spent years memorizing Frost and Tennyson and Coleridge. In his eighteenth-century literature class, I memorized pages of Dryden's Aeniad, Pope's entire epistle to Arbuthnot. He sadistically forced us to recite the poetry before him and the rest of the class, our metric stumbles and forgotten words eroding any chance at As. The masochistic part of me that always wished my parents could have shipped me off to a nineteenth-century British boarding school really loved it. But oh, was it ever painful.

I thought of him again today, before her nap, as Juniper recited some book about multitudinal hippos word for word. When was the last time I memorized anything? I thought of all the memorization I did over the years in school, the many thousands of French, German, Greek, Latin, and Chinese words I learned flipping flashcards. How firm my brain was once; I picture it now like a spreadable cheese, atrophied by neglect. Part of me suspects that forced memorization reawakens the kind of learning we all achieved as toddlers. Juniper's mind is so insatiable. Everything is a question. No answer is enough. I sense her constantly grappling with the limits of this knotty language she inherited from those ancient, smelly clans of Picts and Saxons and their snooty Norman conquerors. She wants story after story, barking at me if I don't get all the details right during the recital of some epic tale of when the dog "got lost" or when she saw an owl "yestertime." When she wakes from her nap I'll sit there and quietly talk with her about such things, wondering the whole time what it must be like to learn so much so quickly. No one remembers it, of course, but there is something so profound and important about this preliterate phase of learning: delineating the sounds of words, the consideration of vocal tones, the importance of repetition. It is something to behold.

I was never a fan of Augustan poetry until I had to memorize it. I never had to memorize it until a man who once beat his wife unconscious with a two-liter bottle of Pepsi forced me to. Strange how that works. She dropped the charges, incidentally, though the bastard was later fired for embezzling thousands of dollars from the coffers of the scholarly journal he edited. And still I think of this horrible man when my daughter recites Sandra Boynton. I pray Juniper's education won't be bent solely towards success on standardized tests. Someday, I hope, she will truly get to know the genius of Alexander Pope. Even if it hurts.