« Confessions of a Nature Lover | Main | Downtown is Gone Forever »

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Reach Far into Memory to Describe a Nerd

By Jerry Waxler of Memory Writers Network blog

I was a nerd in high school. But "nerd" is just a label. I want to illustrate those particular four years of walking those particular halls. If only I could remember.

As a nerd, I didn't have vibrant activities, no sports, no dating. I didn't know how to relate to myself while I was living through those events, so remembering details now seems daunting if not outright impossible. Gradually, after playing with my memory I've discovered there is a lot more in there than first appears. It just takes some effort to sort it out.

I went to Central High School in Philadelphia, an all-boys, all academic school, so not only was I a nerd, but I went to school with nerds. More than 90 percent of my classmates went to college, a very high percentage, especially in those days.

The only athlete I knew was a soccer player who was second in our class and went on to Harvard. There was actually a grade point admission requirement to get into my high school. No slouches permitted!

After each class, the typical banter in the hallway consisted of quizzing each other about things like the names of the nucleic acids in DNA or trying to stump each other about the meaning of SAT vocabulary words. But I need more than that. I need enough detail about a particular scene so readers will feel like they are there with me.

The sense of touch often brings back memories, so I reach out to touch the glazed cinder block wall. While I'm in this tactile mood, out pops the briefcase I carried with me for four years, always so loaded with books I could barely close it. I can smell it, fish around in the bottom and find pencils and the ruler that I use for geometry lessons. I feel the weight of the briefcase, and snap the clasp.

It's a start. Physical props help the writer as well as the reader feel connected to a scene.

I continue to look for enough detail to describe a vivid scene. There is a particular hallway I keep going back to outside my chemistry and physics classes. I try to feel myself in that hallway. It seems like the windows are far away and the hall is darker than others in my memory. Oh, there you go. I just thought of a partial conversation that has the authentic ring of teenagers being disrespectful of a teacher.

Our chemistry teacher was extraordinarily dull. Not only didn't he have a sense of humor, he didn't seem to have emotions of any kind. He had been teaching the notation we would need to keep in our lab notebooks, and the interesting notation for this conversation was that when two substances don't interact, we were to write "NR" for "No Reaction."

After class, me carrying that clunky briefcase, a student jokingly dubbed this teacher with the nickname "NR" and we all laughed. There's nothing like an insider insult to make a teenager feel like walking on air. The scientific terminology is a nice touch to make my nerdy point. And as I look back on it, I realize the irony of a bunch of nerds, laughing about someone who has even more trouble expressing emotion than they do themselves.

While it's not a complete scene, I'm starting to build up components, and if I persist I would end up with boys' names, and what they look like, and what more they say to each other to show the reader how these particular nerds behaved on this particular day in this particular hallway.

While I'm striving to create a vivid scene that the reader can see, I'm benefiting from it too. The ghostlike quality of those years has always disturbed to me. When I try to remember myself in those situations, I have the eerie feeling that I'm a shadow, an outline with no substance. By connecting now with this sort of detail, I feel myself gradually taking on flesh and bones. Writing the scene from more than 40 years ago makes me feel more whole and continuous of a person today.

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Jerry, you not only took me into your school's dark hall but propelled my into one in my High School. Some memories are best left alone.

Your story of how to dredge up memories is both imaginative and clever. I enjoyed it.

Jerry Waxler a nerd?! I never would've guessed given the crazy stuff we've done together. ;-)

Thanks for reminding us that memories have lives of their own. They slip secretly into our subconscious, grow deep roots and years later, peek out at the world through our personalities in ways that confound us and keep our therapists kids' in Ivy league schools.

Wrestling with our formative memories has become a national addiction. Getting to the bottom of our failed relationships, fears and low self esteem is critical to good health and long term happiness. The concept of telling one's own life stories as a vehicle for working out some of these phantoms and demons is both refreshing and creative.

...and the price is right.

Thanks Doc.

Hi Jerry. I could picture everything in your briefcase - and could feel the glazed cylinder walls. Very nice.

The comments to this entry are closed.