I asked a librarian friend of mine the other day if she
sings the alphabet song when she's cataloguing books. I do. I always sing
it as I peruse library shelves for new mysteries, or look things up in the
Whenever I mention this song to people, I am met not with raised eyebrows and haughty looks, but with other songs and mnemonics. This same librarian recited phrases whose first letters spelled out Arithmetic and Geography. Someone I went to school with reminded me that My Very Elegant Mother Just Sat Upon Nine Pizzas was the way we'd been taught the order of the planets as they circle the sun. I can still sing you, but I won't, a little math song I learned in fifth grade to remind us what the square of the hypoteneuse of a right triangle is equal to.
I can't tell you how happy it makes me to know that our childhoods are still inside us like this. I don't recall much else from grade school, which makes me wonder about the power of both music and memorizing. For me, sound and repetition are the big transporters. Proust had his madeleines, but I have Neil Young wailing "Southern Man" and immediately I'm back at the kitchen table, trying to write a report on Nicaragua as the rest of the family mills around and California's winter rain sluices down the glass doors.
Our music teacher single-handedly dragged the whole 8th grade through a year of rehearsals to perform Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, which 37 years later I could probably sing you at least two-thirds of, if you paid me a lot and had a couple hours to spare.
I tell my writing students not to memorize anything they don't really love, because what they learn by heart will get into their bloodstreams and start coming out of their own pens and pencils. Even if you're not a writer, I think what you commit to memory matters. My niece, Gioia, recently leaned forward in the car and recited "The Jaberwock" into my ear; she knew it perfectly. When I bragged about her to my ex-boyfriend, he reeled off the first lines himself without missing a beat. It made me so jealous! But she is a Waldorf student, not the norm. I worry what will become of us when knowing dialogue from Star Wars movies by heart replaces Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in our national consciousness. Maybe it already has.
You are probably still wondering about the librarian. "Of course I sing the alphabet song," she said, "especially between G and M." I was delighted to hear this. There's a lot of conflict in our country right now - red states versus blue ones, the fundamentalist right-wing Christians against the emphatic and outraged Liberals. It gives me a little hope to think that library patrons and staff all across America are wandering through the aisles, united in muttering under their breath: "A B C D E F G, H I J K LMNO P..."?