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?

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