A bad run on the mem banks
At the tender age of 10 I decided I’d become a teacher. It was a decision I never reconsidered and a path I never strayed from. And so, for the rest of my schooling, I studied my teachers and how they taught. One result of this was I remembered all my teachers.
Or at least I thought I did. This week I found yet another example of how my memory, like everything else, isn’t what it used to be.
Even as a wee tyke, I loved history. We were exposed to it in grade school in dribs and drabs, but I scrounged around on my own, finding what I could about “things past” in magazines, the encyclopedia and those orange-bound biographies they had in grade school classrooms. “Scrounged around” was an accurate label for my “research,” and was why my sense of history was sketchy, anecdotal, and unordered. But that all changed in 11th grade, when I found out history, as a field of study, could be put in understandable contexts, and was far more than just pairing a buttload of events with an equal number of dates. The teacher who opened my eyes to that approach was my World History teacher, Mr. Nadler.
To say Mr. Nadler was one of my all-time best and favorite teachers is less dramatic than it sounds, because I’d bet almost everyone who had his class thought the same. He was, to use the old cliche, tall, dark and handsome, he dressed impeccably, and had a deep resonant voice best described as mellifluous. His delivery was deliberate and measured, but never metronomic or monotone, and his organization was flawless.
He was a lecturer and as he lectured he put the main points on the blackboard, in perfect outline form. All we had to do was copy the stuff from the board and add some explanatory details. Then when we reviewed the notes and textbook, we had a great grip on the material. My brother said Mr. Nadler was the only teacher he could take perfect notes from. I agree, and it’s a painful admission, since I know no student ever thought the same about me.
Eleventh grade ace
World History looms so large in my memory because it was a Regents course: In those long-gone days your score on Regents exams was a prime determinant of what colleges would accept you. For most of us, the Barron’s Review books were our crutch. The books were only a collection of past Regents exams. But since each Regents exam was mostly previous exams’ questions somewhat reworded, memorizing the old exams was the secret to doing well on the test.
But World History with Mr. Nadler nullified that approach. Instead of memorizing the questions and answers, I only had to look at them: After a year of Mr. Nadler, I actually understood the material. In fact, I got an A in the Regents. While for me that was an accomplishment as rare for me as a narwhal sighting in Moody Pond, lots of his students got As. It was of course a huge ego boost, and played no small part in me becoming a history major, myself.
Now an odd note: I said I thought I’d remembered all my teachers, right? Well, when I was scribbling my notes for this column, I decided to see if I really could. I started with kindergarten in the Broadway school, with darling Mrs. Eldrett, and went on from there. I zipped through my grade school teachers. I slowed down a bit with the junior high bunch, but could name them all. With the high school lot, the going was equally slow and successful, with one huge exception: I could not remember who I’d had for tenth grade history.
I gave it a rest, and decided to try again in a few hours. Which I did … and with the same result.
The more I tried to remember, the more I drew a blank. This went on for several days, till finally I accepted defeat and realized I’d have to ask someone else.
My first choice was my bro.
“Hey,” I said, dispensing with any greeting, “you remember who taught tenth grade history?”
“Tenth grade?” he said. “Hmm…lemme see … seventh and eighth grade were Miss Kiernan, ninth was Mr. Gallagher, eleventh was Mr. Nadler, and Miss Berry was senior year.”
“Wonderful,” I said. “And now that you told me what I already know, you wanna tell me what I don’t know? Namely who taught tenth grade history.”
“No need to get snotty,” he said. “Remember, you can attract more flies with honey than vinegar.”
“Thanks for that brilliant and original object lesson,” I said. “But who the hell taught tenth grade history?”
“First, say the magic word,” he said.
My jaws clamped shut and I ground my teeth.
Finally, before I’d abraded my crowns, I hissed, “Please.”
“Much better,” he said.
“So who was it, Mr. Manners?”
“No idea,” he said.
I waited a bit for my temp and blood pressure to return to non-homicidal-rage levels, and went on.
“Could you ask your long-suffering wife?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “Since you asked so nicely. Hold on.”
A few minutes later he came back on.
“She doesn’t know either,” he said.
“Well, thanks,” I said. “For nothing.”
“You’re entirely welcome,” he said. “And by the way, our mother was right.”
“About the tenth grade history teacher?”
“No,” he said. “About you and your rotten attitude.”
“Okey dokey,” I said. “Right after I hang up, I’ll get out my Ouija Board and tell her you two are still on the same team.”
Nothing from nothing …
So since my bro and s-i-l were as clueless as me, I’d have to hit up other former SLHS luminaries.
I ran into Marv Best downtown, asked him. He didn’t know.
Next was Peter MacIntyre. Another blank.
A day later, my bro called back and told me he’d called Martha Wilke (nee Partridge), and she didn’t know.
Tom Kilroy, Class of ’61, had no idea.
Time for The Big Kahuna — Russ Shefrin. I figured Russ had to know. After all, he was our class valedictorian. There was no way he could’ve achieved such lofty status without knowing all his teachers, and probably their astrological signs as well. I called, left a message, and the next day he called back.
“Ya know,” he said, “I’ve thought and thought about it, and I’ve no clue who taught tenth grade history. I do remember Mr. Nadler in eleventh grade, though.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said.
“Oh, you’re welcome,” he said, missing my obvious sarcasm.
“He was an excellent teacher, Mr. Nadler,” he said. And then added, “And something tells me he was a Libra.”
That was it. I was now more clueless than when I’d started. I was so desperate I was considering lighting a candle to either St. Anthony (the patron saint of lost things) or St. Jude (the patron saint of hopeless causes) when my phone rang. It was my bro, the etiquette master.
“Well, I solved the mystery,” he said.
“You’re kidding?” I said.
“Not at all,” he said.
“All right, who was it?”
He paused, obviously gloating, then finally spoke.
“There was no tenth grade history,” he said.
Then, using a byzantine set of reasons I couldn’t follow, he explained how he’d reached his conclusion. Of course he was correct, and he had to be. I mean, it’d make sense if a couple peeps couldn’t remember a teacher from 60 years ago. But if no one remembered, odds are there was no teacher.
So how do I feel about being so proud of my memory but having it fail so badly?
Actually, I’m fine with it.
The way I look at it is if I forget something that happened, it’s a failure.
But if I don’t remember something that never happened?
Well, in my book at least, that doesn’t count at all.