The Mnemonic Plague

One man's roygbiv is another man's vibgyor

You'd think that learning a language, especially your own language, would be easy. Such was not the case for me while growing up.

Probably the first adult humans I came in contact with, aside from teachers in school, were my relatives. We lived in California, which meant that the relatives on my Mom's side, who lived in New York, were far enough away to not be expected to pay us a "visit", but unfortunately, the relatives on my Dad's side, who lived in Texas, didn't let the 1,000 miles or so to keep them strangers, and one day they showed up at our house.

Whatever basic premises I had about spelling and grammar went out the window after hearing the relatives talk. It was like they were from another planet! Three or four words flew by that I was able to recognize a second or two after hearing them, but in between were lots of stuff I simply couldn't identify. Fortunately for me I was of the age where I wasn't expected to be included in conversations between "adults", so after a brief period of having the hair on the top of my head tasseled and being told that I had grown "like a weed" since the last time they were here, I could wander off and be by myself.

The "weed" thing kind of bothered me, because my mother spent countless hours on her knees roaming all over our yard pulling out weeds, which, I gathered, were extremely undesirable, judging from her disposition before, during, and after her weeding sessions. Was I destined to, at some point, suddenly be "plucked" from the Earth by an unseen hand?

By that time in my life I had seen programs on TV about the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, about 25 miles from where we lived. I remember hearing that hundreds of pre-historic animals had died from walking out on "tar", then sinking away, never to be seen again. I had never actually seen any tar, but it made sense to me that whatever it was, you'd have to be pretty dumb to walk out on a large area of tar without a good reason. At some point in a conversation between my parents and the relatives from Texas, just as I was going to nod out from boredom, I heard the word "tar" mentioned, and I immediately perked up, thinking that I might be able to offer some personal insight about tar.

My grandfather had said something to the effect of "the tar was low, so I had to put some air into it", which made no sense whatsoever to me, so I stifled the urge to chime in with my knowledge about tar, and listened closely for several more minutes. Time went on, and then my ears perked up when I heard him say that he had found a nail in the tar, and some guy at a "filling station" had removed it. Again I was puzzled, as I couldn't figure out why someone would go to the trouble of removing a nail from tar, instead of just allowing it to sink down to the bottom, never to be seen again. I couldn't imagine a single nail being that important, but again decided not to join in the conversation.

Walking out to the garage, I stood in front of my Dad's workbench and saw several large jars filled with different sizes of nails. I had no idea what a single nail might cost, but I doubt that it was very much. Maybe nails were scarce in Texas, and they tried to save any ones that they could. I still couldn't imagine that anyone would go to the trouble of cleaning all that tar off the nail when they could just buy a new one for a few pennies.

Leaving the garage I noticed the car that my relatives owned was in our driveway, so I decided to see what a car from Texas was like. The front of the car was covered with about a zillion dead bugs! Most of them looked like some sort of squished bee or fly, but there were lots of big dragonflies here and there. I found a small stick and pried several of them off, then put them in a jar for possible practical jokes when school started up again in the Fall.

The windows were rolled down and when I looked at the steering wheel I saw a large doorknob was hooked onto the side. This was completely new to me, and I quietly opened the door and sat inside, as if I was driving somewhere. The steering wheel was really hard to move, but the doorknob thingie just spun around and didn't do anything. There were lots of knobs and dials for the radio, heater, and wipers, although none of them did anything either. I played like I was in some spaceship somewhere in space turning knobs and dials and pressing my foot on the accelerator pedal, which didn't really do anything but it was fun to pretend, anyway.

The next day it was time for the relatives to leave, and we all stood in the driveway to watch them drive away. My grandfather got into the car and it made a starting noise but didn't start. My grandfather made it do the starting noise again, and after a few seconds there was a loud explosion and a big black cloud came out of the back of the car, along with the turn signals flashing, the windshield wipers going back and forth, and the radio was playing louder than I had ever heard one play before. The events of the next few minutes have been blurred from my memory, but I think they involved my grandfather using bad language, my parents yelling, and eventually me being grounded for quite a while.


Learning to speak English properly wasn't that bad you could always listen to your parents or other kids, and, providing that they didn't come from Myanmar (or Texas) you could make a go of it. Writing, however, was a different story.

Above the blackboard at my school were 26 examples of how one should cursively depict each letter of the alphabet. Yeah, right. Nobody, and I mean nobody even came close to having their writing remotely resemble the examples. Nobody, that is, except for our teacher and a girl (who shall remain nameless) that sat in front of me. She was one of the do-gooder types that always got the correct answer, and always raised her hand in response to that dreaded "Who has the answer to number seven on our worksheet?" question.

The fact that she sat in front of me meant that at least a hundred times each day the teacher would be looking in my direction when "the girl" answered a question. This, of course, meant that for most of the class period I would have to at least look like I was following the discussion. The thought of taping my eyes open with clear cellophane tape actually was considered at one point.

Eventually we progressed into compound words, words that were spelled the same but had different meanings, words that were spelled differently but had the same meaning, and other things that made no sense at all. The deeper we probed into the dynamics of words, the less they sounded like anything that we would actually say (or write) on any given day. I was grasping at threads here, and I knew that if this kept up I would probably have to repeat the last three grades.

My struggles with trying to speak and write like a "normal" student came to a crashing halt when it was time for the school's annual May Carnival. The teacher tried to downplay the importance of our participation by drilling us that it wasn't so much a competition between each of us and, say, "the girl", or the teacher herself, but an opportunity to show the entire school what little scholars we had become. I didn't buy this for a second, but I was now in 6th grade and next year I would be going to a different school hopefully one that didn't stress penmanship above all else.

The students were divided up into different groups, and my group got stuck with making a large banner that would be hung over the card table that would contain the sum of our entire classes knowledge up to that time. The theme, if I remember correctly, was something like "All the World's a Stage", or something to that effect. I immediately realized that this was a big joke, because it was suggested to my group that we use a phrase from Shakespeare to serve as our inspiration to learn as much as we could about everything, and be able to write legibly about it.

The teacher gave us a large book with quotations from Shakespeare and we were to choose one that seemed appropriate. Yeah, right. First someone would read a quotation aloud, then hand the book to the next student to pick one and read it aloud, and so on and so forth. There were three or four groups, each huddled around a table in the Library. As our teacher made her rounds from table to table, we would all become very serious as she passed, resuming our giggling when she was a sufficient distance away. This was not so easy to do, as each member of our group struggled to pronounce all of the stupid words that Shakespeare was saying. None of it made any sense whatsoever. If any of us had turned in this kind of gibberish on a test we'd be given an F, but this Shakespeare guy became famous for pawning this stuff off.

I looked around at the other tables and saw that one group was making one of those cool paper mâché volcanos that you fill with vinegar and baking soda. Rats! Why couldn't I be in that group instead? Another group had a bunch of pine cones spread out on the table, but I couldn't figure out what they were going to do with them.

Meanwhile, in my group, each time the Shakespeare book was passed around, the person reading the quote would always screw it up somehow, which caused everyone else to start laughing. Then the next person would give it a try, screw it up, and we'd all start laughing again. Soon the person reading from the book would try to emulate some great orator, including hand gestures and the whole nine yards, but still mis-pronounce something and everybody would break out laughing. By this time our laughter drew the attention of our teacher, but I was laughing so hard I couldn't stop, and was dangerously close to peeing in my pants.

Our teacher, sensing the futility of the current approach to choosing a phrase, scooped up the book, and after perusing it for all of two seconds chose a phrase for us. Whichever utterance she picked out has long been erased from my memory, but the "choosing" phase was now complete, and we were still left with the task of cutting out all of the letters from brightly colored construction paper and gluing them to the banner, which was a long roll of smooth paper provided by somebody from the cafeteria. After a zillion attempts to spread out all of the letters evenly across the banner, the project came to a much-anticipated conclusion. The Carnival was a success, summer arrived in the nick of time, and I never knowingly volunteered for a group again.