Monday, January 24, 2011

Elementary School and Ambergris and Bituminous Coal and Memory

I’ve been thinking lately about elementary school and that led me to thinking about ambergris and bituminous coal and memory.
The whole process started when (as previously indicated), traveling by my ownself down one of memory’s lanes I got stuck thinking about elementary school and what a weird bunch of years it encompasses (not sure that’s the right word here but, if I don’t come up with a better one and remove all this stuff, you’ll get my drift). For me it was eight years (1st grade through 8th) in an overcrowded Roman Catholic grade school staffed primarily by nuns. Saint Holy-mackerel-what-a-boat-load-of-kids! (A non-church affiliated school would, in those over crowded times, simply have been called “Oh-shit-here-they-come! #14” but we went to mass EVERY DAY so, although surely they were thinking it, no one was saying it) got us when we had just turned six and spit us out at fourteen (or thereabouts).

What a span! Recently potty trained to raging hormones all in the same building. We didn’t have Middle School or Junior High. We had 1st Graders and 8th Graders. We had the big kids and the little kids. The big kids were the Safety Cadets (if they had good grades. This was St. Holy…! remember. The nun’s didn’t really have to be very PC back then. If you couldn’t spell you couldn’t be a Cadet – don’t argue) and the little kids rattled around the playground like a bag of kittens chasing marbles. It worked. We learned the Three Rs and a whole lot of religion and some values and to follow our conscience. On reflection I’m not sure how it worked (probably chalk it up to the nuns. Man, those ladies could organize and multitask and look like they were floating to boot. < I remember that there was a rumor when I was in some early grade or other that they didn't have ears under their white head wraps and that they were bald and took baths with their clothes on {as an adult I'm pretty sure they had ears}> Again, I digress) but it worked.

So, anyway, there I sat (humble, fat and small) thinking about grade school and suddenly I remembered AMBERGRIS. Really, ambergris (for those of you who did not have ambergris as part of you elementary school curriculum ambergris is something a whale produces that is a primary ingredient in perfume <that's all that I remember from the ambergris lesson and I'm not going to look anything else up. It's just too weird>  and it’s very expensive)!

Who decided that we needed to know about ambergris (imagine, if you will, the scenario: “Sister Phyllis have you taught the 3rd graders about ambergris  <3rd grade, that’s when we got geography books and I think I learned it in geography [I know, don’t ask]>?” “Why no, Sister Eduardo, I haven’t. Do you think they are ready for it?” “They can handle it Sister Phyllis. They’ll have to…one day.”) and why do I remember it? I don’t remember learning to read. I don’t remember learning how to spell ambergris. I don’t remember the teacher who taught us about ambergris (wow, I can’t say ambergris too many more times or I’ll get the giggles). I remember bituminous coal though. Bituminous coal stuck around! Again it was geography class and I had (yes, it’s true) a lay teacher (for the uninitiated that’s a non-nun) and (dah-duh-dah-duh-dum) she was single! I remember learning about bituminous coal in the context of the stuff produced or mined in some state (which state? That I don’t remember) and that it’s smoky when it burns. That’s it: the sum total of my bituminous coal knowledge. Why does this weird, goofy stuff stick? What a funny patchwork memory can be.

We go through our lives actively remembering to pack our lunch or our mother’s birthday or the poem we memorized for show and tell. We work at it. We engage our ability to remember and kick ourselves when we don’t. Some things we try equally hard to banish. Some pains we wish we could forget and don’t and some we treasure and hold near and dear and know we never shall. Sometimes we throw our arms wide and think to ourselves “I will never forget this moment” and we don’t even know we’ve forgotten it because it’s gone…and then there’s ambergris and bituminous coal.


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