When I was working on the prerequisites for veterinary school, I took a night class in organic chemistry. For five hours every Tuesday night, I and the other aspiring vets or doctors or pharmacists, were led by a zany adjunct instructor who would say such things as, “Oh yes, your homework. I do have that at home. It’s under the toast.” Among his more memorable speeches was a pep talk he gave us when the class was heavy laden under the mass of information we had to assimilate. “Memorization,” he said, “is nothing to be afraid of. You do it all the time. Were you born knowing your best friend’s name? You had to memorize it, but you didn’t mind, because you like your best friend.” Of course, many of the students objected that they had no interest in the friendship of organic chemistry, but the analogy struck me then and I use it with my students now.
When I take my students out for hikes and wildlife surveys, they often become daunted by all the names. Some stick: red-winged blackbird, turkey tail fungus, and even some Latin names have some particular staying power (the genus name for the club mosses, Lycopodium, always resonates) but others run out of their heads like water through a sieve. The same thing still happens to me. It’s like any language; it fades as you don’t use it. Even from year to year, I have to refresh my memory as things show up, unfurl, leaf out. The key is not so much a superior memory, it’s wanting to learn the names.
When my semester began back in January, I had almost ninety students’ names to learn. I made my little charts, and compared them with snapshots I took on the first day. Adding a gloss of memory prompts and notes to the chart, it acquired the bizarre quality of a list of lesser characters in a demented play. “Stoner guy” “Old-timey/Victorian face” “weird elf girl” “scowler” are jotted next to the given names on my lists. The hardest ones are the passel of similar looking students. The women with long hair, skinny jeans and impassive, innocuous faces. It takes a while with them, until I’ve learned more about them, something to fix them to a name. One turns out to be a quick wit, another, nearly identical in appearance is a cheerful imbecile. Information accumulates until there is no one I would confuse with anyone else by the end of the semester. By the end, I know them by sight, by voice, by handwriting, by wardrobe, by the pitch of their back row whining or front row questioning.
It’s the same with learning the names of anything–students, birds, plants. First you know one tenuous fact, then two, then a suite of things that make you recognize the thing. You know your best friend not only by name, but by voice, by gait, by silhouette, by laugh. It becomes not any kind of work to remember. Two plants that seemed frustratingly similar at first differentiate in quality of green, height, or by the disparate seasons when they sprout. You learn the names in their context and by their relations. Once you know them for good, you’d know them anywhere.
It doesn’t feel like memorizing to learn the name of a friend, but it is. To learn all the names in the woods or in the meadows, it’s just the same. It’s only a matter of broadening what we consider friends.