Memory

Last Saturday I got the idea that Heather and I should take the family to the lovely Hill Country town of Wimberley, Texas for a little day trip. Heather and I have spent a good deal of time in Wimberley and have come to really enjoy the town and overall feel of the place. While there, we are always especially mindful to pay a visit to a glass blowing and retail shop just outside of town. We like to pop into the shop for the glass blowing demonstrations as they always produce a sense of awe at the craft of glass blowing. During this particular visit the artisans were crafting a platter; an amazing process beginning with a glob of molten glass, which becomes a finely shaped air-filled cylinder, and finally opens up, like a flower, to became a beautifully designed platter full of rich color. During the demonstration, the shop owner and glass blower was discussing a cylindrical mold that would imprint the molten glass with sharp ridges and deep grooves. After the description, his fellow craftsman plunged the glass cylinder into the mold and out it came with said ridges and grooves. What he said next is etched deeply in my mind as it really struck me as profoundly true of the human experience. He said, “This piece will forever have the memory of these grooves and ridges” and “no matter how many times the piece is rolled, formed, and reheated, it will retain a memory of the mold it was forced in to.”

On the way back to Fredericksburg, Heather and I were discussing how this reality might be true of other things at the molecular level, such as water, and my better half made the connection between the memory of the glass and that which is expressed in a story told by Helen Keller in “The Story of My Life.” Heather is always really great at connecting the dots for me. When we got home I began probing further into Keller’s story.         

At the age of eleven, Helen Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, described the late fall foliage at Fern Quarry, the Keller family home. Sullivan’s description “revived a memory”[1] of Helen’s, which wasn’t then recognized as a memory but rather an original thought. Overcome by the urge to make concrete the thoughts swirling in her inner world, Helen immediately began writing out a story on her brail slate. She organized the story around King Frost and his Kingdom. In her story, Keller describes autumn conditions with stunning imagery. She speaks of King Frost as “a generous old monarch [who] endeavors to make a right use of his riches” by building transparent bridges across every river and “shaking the forest trees until the ripe nuts fall in to the laps of laughing children.” She goes on to say, King Frost “puts the flowers to sleep with one touch of his hand; then, lest we should mourn for the bright faces of the flowers, he paints the leaves with gold and crimson and emerald, and when his task is done the trees are beautiful enough to comfort us for the flight of summer.”[2] Not bad for an eleven-year-old possessing just three fifths of the senses given to man! Notice much of what she describes would have originated with the senses she lacks. Where then did she get the information and why did she feel it was her own? Well, as it turns out, it was not her own.

Upon sending her story to the Perkins Institute for the blind, and its subsequent publication in one of the institute’s reports, it was discovered that Helen’s account in the The Frost King was similar to a story written by Margaret T. Canby titled The Frost Fairies. The stories are actually more than just similar, some parts are verbatim. When the discovery was made an investigation ensued and it was determined that the The Frost Fairies must have been read to Helen outside the supervision of Anne Sullivan sometime after Helen’s ninth birthday. It is suspected the story was read to Helen during the period when word formation rather than comprehension was the focus, as evidenced by the fact that Helen had no recollection of the story being read to her. Helen describes this period of her education as a time when “stories had little or no meaning… but the mere spelling of the strange words was sufficient to amuse a little child who could do almost nothing to amuse herself,”[but]one thing [was] certain, the language was ineffaceably stamped upon [her] brain, though for a long time no one knew it, least of all [Helen].”1 

This incident not only left Helen with deep scars, as the accusations by people she loved  mounted, but it left her with the certainty that she would not “always [be able] to distinguish [her] own thoughts from those [she] read,” in fact she admits that what she read became the “very substance and texture of [her] mind.”1 A nervous breakdown followed the investigation and Helen would never write fiction again. Although, like the life of Helen Keller, there is much to be gleaned from tragedy, and in this case it is the potency of memory and education that must be our focus.

Regarding memory, or the “Habit of Remembering”, Charlotte Mason says this: 

“memory is the storehouse of whatever knowledge we possess; and it is upon the fact of the stores lodged in the memory that we take rank as intelligent beings,” and that “much of what was learned and experienced in childhood, and later, we cannot reproduce, and yet it has formed the groundwork of after-knowledge; later notions and opinions have grown out of what we once learned and knew.”[3]

Thus, the habit of Remembering is vital to human growth and an integral part of our being. In other words, the storehouse of our academic and experiential memory is what makes up our person, which is why it is all but impossible to pinpoint the thread that makes up the fabric of who we are.

Furthermore, if we can break memory down into two categories, there are those experiences in life that come to us and then there is the academic portion of memory. The latter does not come accidentally and requires an instrument, a tool; maybe more than one, but certainly this one must be firmly in place, acting as the gatekeeper of academic memory, especially if our being is to be comprised of that which is good, true, and beautiful.  That tool is attention. Attention is vital in this regard; a notion that is a bit unsettling given the intense clamoring for our attention, and that of our children, by a seeming infinite number of sources. For example what is marketing but the science of attention? Good old Ronald McDonald loves that “I’m loving it” occasionally creeps into my brain and begs me to realize that I really do love it; that I really do love the mysterious olfactory experience of a McDonald’s cheeseburger accompanied by fresh cut potato product. Thankfully, Morgan Spurlock grabbed my attention long enough to allow reason a fighting chance when considering swinging by the golden arches for a quick bite. However, reason cannot necessarily be counted on, thus we must look to not only attention, but that which our attention and that of our children, is being drawn to on a daily basis.

Consider the swell of images and ideas our children encounter daily that many of us assume are either well beyond or above their stream of consciousness, i.e. spelling a story into the hand of nine-year-old who happens to be both deaf and blind, and now imagine that these images and ideas are actually sinking in on a deep level depending on the attention they are given. “Screen Time” may take on a new level of significance when we consider the infinite potential of the human mind to build a memory that will become the source from which we make our decisions and determine our various moods. Maybe just as important a question, if not more, would be “what sort of images and ideas are being put before my child while he or she is in school?”

Ambleside provides a curriculum of well selected books containing the best ideas, training in life-giving habits, and an atmosphere of truth and sincerity. I know of no other place doing these things at this level of intentionality. In fact, I have never encountered another house of education even considering these things, especially as they pertain to who their students will become. In my last entry I asked the question: what is an education if not training the ability of one to notice the Universe? Today I ask the question: what is an education if not the academic accumulation of ideas; ideas that will come to make up the place from which our students function in the world?

 



[1] Keller, Helen “The Story of My Life”

[2] Keller, Helen “The Frost King” taken from: http://www.afb.org/mylife/book.asp?ch=p3ch5app2

[3] Mason, Charlotte “Home Education: Training and Educating Children Under Nine” (pages 154-159)