When I put my mind to it, I realize that I have long since forgotten perhaps more than I remember.
. . . the names of the Shakespearean tragedies . . . the number of elements on the periodic table . . . the distance from the earth to the sun . . . why humans hiccup . . . the Gettysburg Address . . . the Pythagorean Theorem . . .
Throughout my first twelve years of education, rote memorization was a way of life. If it could be memorized, the good Sisters of Our Lady of Fatima Grade School and St. Thomas Aquinas High School required it. There wasn’t a week that passed without my brain being stretched in order to set something, usually something I perceived as complicated, to memory. It seems like I was routinely required to retain and recall all kinds of formulas, poems, definitions, conjugations, lists, songs, instructions, passages, speeches and prayers.
. . . the 44 United States Presidents . . . the Greek alphabet . . . Maslow’s first name . . . the hierarchy of biological classifications . . . the lyrics of almost any song . . . the novels of Mark Twain . . . the Latin roots of the verbs of action . . . the I have a dream speech . . . PI and its uses . . .
When I think back to the laundry list of things I memorized and fast forward to today’s list of thing I have long since forgotten, it’s a little frightening. In my neck of the woods, what fifth grader didn’t have to recite by heart the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution? What second grader didn’t have their multiplication tables memorized? And what Catholic high school senior couldn’t recite the books of the Bible – New and Old Testament without flaw? But on some levels, today, I may be hard pressed to ace all that I once knew with ease.
. . . a natural minor scale . . . the names of bones in the human body . . . the rules of probability . . . the expeditions of Ferdinand Magellan . . . the kilometer to mile conversation formula . . . the nations of the United Nations . . . the members of the Dow . . . why there are lunar phases . . .
From 1962 to 1974, my life included many evenings of tough love studying to ensure that not only did I memorized everything aside from the ingredients of the nearby pickle jar, but so, too, did my five siblings. I can still hear the ‘listen and repeat’ mantra emanating from family and friends – hoping that all that entered my head stayed in my head.
. . . the list of constellations . . . Juliet’s speech from the balcony . . . how to find a square root of anything . . . the NASA astronauts . . . prime numbers up to 100 . . . the periodization list . . .
During my college life and beyond, the time spent memorizing seemed to diminish. Perhaps I had committed everything that I needed to commit to memory. (It’s a nice thought, but even as I write that one, I doubt it.) Perhaps higher education was moving me beyond remembering towards understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, or creating. (That’s a lofty thought.) Or perhaps I just ran out of time (which is the most likely explanation), for memorizing cannot be accomplished without a generous allotment of available minutes, hours, days. I know, however, that time spent on memorizing is time well spent.
As evidenced by what occurred on Friday, May 11th, 2012.
As a lifelong educator, I have attended all kinds of graduation ceremonies; and each ceremony has its own flair of the sun . . . its own flash of sparkle . . . its own best moment. But in all that I have witnessed, nothing has even come close to May 11, 2012.
The pomp and circumstance of this particular ceremony was in full swing. The National Anthem had been sung, the faculty awards given, the distinguished alumni honored, and the presidential welcome complete. Next in line was the speech from the young student trustee. The graduates were poised for listening, but as always, their hopes were for something short and sweet.
Kiersten took the stage with ease, cap and gown swirling around her. She strode to the podium, and much like all earlier speakers, her prepared notes were waiting for her. And she did pause momentarily to open them. Then, with striking confidence, she gazed out into the audience and began her address. Within seconds, the audience – which filled the field house beyond capacity – came to the realization that those notes were going to go unused, because she had – in preparation for the occasion – committed her entire speech to memory.
And it was stunning.
No cue cards, no teleprompter, no power point, no reading from notes, no magic tricks . . . just Kiersten delivering a speech for the ages. And as she finished and left the stage, my mind wandered back to the times and moments that folks asked me to memorize something, anything, everything. I could hear Sister Mary Vincent loud and clear telling a class of eight year olds that even though I didn’t understand it today, in the future, I would see the power of a speech memorized well. And it may have taken a long time, but on May 11, 2012, I saw just that.
I am no stranger to great speakers. It has been my privilege through my type of employment to hear a slew of tremendous folks speak – among those: President Clinton, Senator Ted Kennedy, Governor Jeb Bush, Dr. Mark Milliron, Ms. Eva Mozes Kor, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, Ms. Erma Bergmann, Mr. Jim Collins, Ms. Jean Driscoll, Mr. Lou Henken, and many, many more.
From that particular list, I can remember not only the essence of their oration, but their presentation style as well – each one having a different type of appeal, a different type of approach, evoking a different type of emotion.
What was common, however, is my impression that all of them had memorized their entire presentation. Moment for moment, word for word, they had it memorized. Some spoke at great length. Some were humorous. Some were aided by technology. Some were asked to speak at the very last moment, but regardless seemed to be totally prepared. One took my breath away.
Today, I thank my lucky stars on two levels: one that my life has been filled with opportunities to memorize more than i can ever remember, and two that I was among those in attendance on May 11th, 2012 – where I witnessed excellence.