Reach deep into memory to build a scene

By Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

I wish I could portray what it was like to be a nerd in high school. I had few friends and for four years, my main interest in life was studying and reading. The best way to share my nerdiness is to show scenes, bringing readers into the halls of my high school to see for themselves. And yet when I try to describe my life in high school, I feel like I’m trying to peer into the hidden memories of a stranger. Who was that guy? Fortunately, memoir writers have tricks. By prying into the hazy past, we can find far more detail than we had first expected.

One way to get started is to list facts. It was 1961 when I started attending Central High School in Philadelphia, an all-boys, all-academic school, where more than 90% of my classmates were heading to college. There was actually a minimum grade required for admission. No slackers permitted! Every morning, I walked down to wait for the trolley, an electric contraption that clanked, hissed and squealed on tracks. By the time the trolley reached Broad and Olney it was packed. The doors thwacked open, and I stepped into the hectic terminal, crossed Broad and walked down past the girls’ high school. I didn’t know any girls, and just kept walking. As I reached Ogontz, I looked up at the school perched on a hill. Then my imagination fades. I can’t see inside the building.

Since my eyes don’t seem to be working, I try stirring up smells, touch, and sounds. Groping like a blind man, I reach out and my hand lands on a blackboard. I am transported into ninth grade algebra. My teacher calls me up to the front of the class to show a homework problem. With chalk in hand, scratching the board and smelling the dust, I feel the excitement, hoping my work is right and terrified that it’s wrong. I love algebra, and I love my algebra teacher Mr. Abrams. His passionate demand for excellence would change the course of my life. He is short, and on the last day, after a year of looking up to him, I am horrified to hear a student say, “Mr. Abrams. Would you stand up on a chair so I can kneel down and take your picture?”

Ah-ha! That’s the secret. The events that emerge from memory are loaded with emotions. The emotions make the memory stick. And that’s the problem. I was an intellectual, among a crowd of intellectuals, and emotions were not in our vocabulary. We wanted to get into top schools and that meant being serious, all the time. No wonder I don’t remember much.

But there is hope. I’ve already discovered one scene. Surely there must be others. I grope again, touching the glazed cinder block walls that on hot days radiate a soothing coolness. In this tactile mode, I feel a weight in my hand. It’s my briefcase, so loaded with books I can barely close it. I smell today’s sandwich, dig around in the bottom and find pencils and stab myself on the point of the compass that I use for drawing circles in geometry class. I snap the clasp. There is a particular hallway I keep going back to outside my chemistry class. The windows seem far away, and the hall is dimly lit.

The main focus of every conversation is to drill each other about things we are supposed to know for tests. We also try to stump each other about the definition of vocabulary words. As I try to listen in on these conversations, I again feel a complex thrill of emotion, desperate to sound smart, mixed with fear that I might sound stupid. I try to home in on one conversation.

Our chemistry teacher is extraordinarily flat. Not only doesn’t he have a sense of humor. He doesn’t express emotions of any kind. In one lesson, he teaches us the laboratory notation for a chemical reaction that does nothing. Think for example of pouring water over rocks. No dissolving, no heat, no change in color. When that happens we are supposed to write “NR” which stands for “No Reaction.”

Emerging from class into that dark hallway, I walk with an awkward gait, compensating for the heavy briefcase in my hand. Another student turns to me and loudly quips, “Hey. Let’s just call him ‘NR.'” It feels good to show a little disrespect for our teacher. And the scientific terminology is a nice touch. We all laugh. Looking back, I realize why the memory stands out from the haze – we are a bunch of nerds laughing at someone who has even more trouble expressing emotion than we do ourselves.

While it’s not a complete scene, I’m adding more components, and if I persist I could end up with boys’ names, and what they looked like, and what more they said to each other, to show how these particular nerds behaved on this particular day in this particular hallway. Even if I only find one or two such scenes, readers will see for themselves that I was a nerd. And at the same time, I’m benefiting from it too. The ghostlike quality of those years has always given me the eerie feeling that I was a shadow, an outline with no substance. By discovering scenes, I feel my past self gradually taking on flesh and bones, filling in who that boy was back then, and making me feel more whole and continuous of a person today.

Writing prompt
What scene do you wish you could remember? List facts, descriptions, names of places, names of people. Do they remind you of anything else you didn’t think of until you started writing? Touch objects. Find a particular object, and while you are touching or looking at it, look around and describe what you see. Name a person and talk to him or her. What are you saying? Remember anything that person said or probably said, and listen to the voice. What does this tone of voice tell you about the person or their background? How does the conversation make you feel?

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

7 thoughts on “Reach deep into memory to build a scene

  1. Excellent post Jerry. Being a bit of a nerd, I can relate.

    A few recommendations are in order:

    If you want to read more about nerdiness in all its many facets, check out:

    1) “Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them” by David Anderegg. Written by a child psychologist, this one is an eye-opener.

    2) “American Nerd: The Story of My People” by Benjamin Nugent. Funny and eloquently written.

    And, regarding memory, check out this amazing book about an individual with a superior autobiographical memory:

    “The Woman Who Can’t Forget: The Extraordinary Story of Living with the Most Remarkable Memory Known to Science–A Memoir” by Jill Price and Bart Davis. I’m going to be posting about this book soon. It was an interesting read more for the details about her memory and less about her story.

    Good stuff, Jerry.

  2. Jerry–this is very well-written and you take us right back to those days with you. It stimulated me to tell a tale of Miss Dively, the ancient crone I had THREE years of Latin with, in a similarly academically-oriented girls’ school I had the (mis)fortune to attend for four years as a BOARDER in Palo Alto, CA. It was a prep school for Stanford, which luckily I got into, but boy, did your story lead me back there.

    SO – where would I post such a response? Certainly not here in the comments? Thanks, and I’m trying with Sharon’s help to fix the addressing problem here. Maybe I just want to visit the blog rather than be overwhelmed by the chattiness of your avid group!

    Cheers, ~Kathi, who still has all four Latin texts. I find I’m a rather rare bird who’s alive to say she had four years of the dead language. (Guess what happened to us seniors when Miss D. retired before our last year!?! Va-va-va-vhoom with Miss ____?!)

  3. Jerry, what a fantastic job of exploring those memories! Your last line is absolutely beautiful– about becoming whole with the little boy you once were. Splendid!

    I felt much the same way in writing my memoir, but as your post clearly shows– there is always more to be discovered! Thanks. (BTW I’ve added your site to my blogroll.)

  4. Hi Kathi,

    Thanks so much for your micro-story. It says so much about you. Sure you can share it here. Isn’t that the great challenge for writers? We look for readers. The internet has opened up so many possibilities, but we still have to sort our way through them and connect readers to writers, one story at a time.


  5. How DO you come up with so many great ideas, Jerry? It’s amazing how many memories need only a trigger to come to the surface; a smell, an object, a sound. I started writing my school memories by focusing on the teachers in each grade. I was amazed at what memories came up, things I hadn’t thought of for many years. ~Karen

  6. Karen,

    It sounds like you’re working on the writing prompts. That’s fun! I’m not sure I can answer “where I get ideas” except for the observation that “writing begets writing” or “The more you think the more you think.” 🙂


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