Understanding Memory and Learning

Almost everything we do requires some form of memory. Most of our everyday actions require memory, but we seldom notice this. They’re like everyday appliances that work unseen in our homes and only the absence of them reminds of their presence. Unseen like electricity we tend to only notice when it is absent or the key that won’t open the lock as usual. Absence alerts us to their presence and usefulness.

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We remember facts and skills through practice and rehearsal until some become like second nature. I remember things like how to drive my car seemingly by instinct, but if I must use another car with instruments placed slightly differently, it takes time for me to feel comfortable, reaching for the handbrake with my foot instead of my hand or vice-versa. We remember passwords and once upon a time phone numbers, were things many could recite but this is almost a lost skill as our phones now do this for us. Some memories are stored deeply perhaps never to be retrieved. Other memories float on the surface bubbling and spilling over regularly into our lives.

We are even guilty of Magpie like behavior of stealing the shiny memory nests of others and hoarding and mixing them until they become parts of our memory and our own prized possessions. Moreover, when we retrieve memories, we don’t produce exact photocopies. Memories are reconstructed in the retrieval process. We compose a picture and add and subtract and create what for us is an exact copy.

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Our brains can also separate our memories and memories can be stored relatively quickly and unintentionally. We can also divide memories up into spatial and autobiographical memory which are almost inexhaustible and new situations can change our memories and the way we see things. Our memories are important because they help us build relationships among facts, events and our experiences.  Amnesia or the lack of memory is a devastating condition as we are becoming all too aware of with the seemingly growing prevalence of various forms of Dementia and Alzheimer’s like diseases and the devastation on individuals and families.

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In order to become more effective learners, we need to develop ways of organizing information using memorable tactics making it easier to recall. Growing up some used music Mnemonic Devices such as ABC songs to help remember the alphabet and Word Mnemonics to remember things like Musical Scales, “Every Good Boy Deserves Favor (EGBDF)” to remember the lines of the Treble Clef from the bottom to the top, and the Great Lakes of the United States are for many in my generation engrained in the word “H.O.M.E Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie.” Mind maps are another device that help us make connections and give visual understandings of complex content.  But for memory to work at an optimal level we need periods of rest between retrieval and reviewing the information we’ve stored, that is spaced intervals for memory to work well. Which is why reviewing material at the start of any lesson is so important for students in and outside of the classroom.

Helping students understand that instead of reading information repeatedly they would remember more efficiently if first they wrote down what they remembered about a topic. Then checked the textbook or their notes to see what they missed out. This repeated retrieval process is a much more efficient and a better way to understand and remember any content.

Above all we need to be able to relate personally to what we want to remember. Motivation is often very self-centered.  Effective teachers try to encourage their students to make up their own memorable devices when they are learning important material, if they want it to stick.

Moreover, the best ways to remember something is to keep retrieving and reconstructing the memory/information. Sadly, we all do this too often with negative memories and play them repeatedly so engraining and storing them and stopping the act of forgetting.

Most educators know how to store up all the tiny wonder moments of teaching and student learning which startle us from time to time, retrieving and replaying them when faced with the opposite and enjoying this rollercoaster ride, we call teaching. Good memories help us thrive and survive and are needed now perhaps more than ever.

C&A, Shopping and Knobbly Knees

We like to buy our clothes in C&A at Marble Arch on Oxford Street in the West End, if we’ve the money. C&A is where I sometimes go with my big sisters Rose Marie and Patsy, usually when Mum insists that they take me. We catch the Number 36 bus to the Odeon cinema and walk around the corner and C& A’s is on the opposite side of the road. It’s the first big store on the street the mannequins seem to call to shoppers dressed in the latest gear. Once through the glass doors you enter a mecca of kitsch wonderment. This is high cheap disposable fashion at its best.

As we enter the store our eyes are captivated by shiny shimmering racks of clothing and people mostly young women milling around hands caressing garments as they part hangers and gaze with delight or disgust at the offerings before them.

“Hey Pats, take a look at these,” Rose Marie shrieks to Patsy as she holds up some long patent red boots.
“Wow, fab,” whispers Patsy, “But Rosie I doubt they’ll zip up on your calves, let me try them, do they have a size 6?” Rosie’s mouth turns up ever so slightly as she hands Patsy the boots in her size.”

“Well, I’m sure these will fit.” Rose Marie is holding up a pair of black kitten-heeled shoes with a big buckle on the front. They look like the shoe’s witches wear, but I know Rose Marie, is happy that she has found this pair of shoes as they’re a size 3.

Rose Marie is proud of her tiny hands and feet. They’re much smaller than Patsy’s.

I just watch them shopping, I like looking at the racks of clothes and the customers disappearing into changing rooms with arms clutching long coats which look like they’re made of carpets trimmed with fur stuff, like you see on Christmas cards of Victorian winter scenes and lots of the girls with long hair are wearing long white shiny patent leather boots, with witches buckles, white matching polar necked ribbed tops and miniskirts in a rainbow of colors.

I don’t try on clothes or shoes. I just eat up the sights of people wearing stuff. My sisters have part-time jobs. Rose Marie works at an after-school club and Patsy works at a corner shop after school and at weekends, so they can afford to splurge occasionally. As I twirl labels around on a rack of tops, I feel Rose Marie’s arm circling my neck. Unlike sometimes when I’m sure she is trying to strangle me this feels like a friendly hug.

“Have a look at these Angie.” She points to a rack of clearance items. There are trousers, skirts, blouses and jumpers all hanging on a long rack and they’re a mixture of sizes. To the left of that rack is a row of skirts. They’re shocking pink, salmon pink, powder blue, sky blue, lilac and green and turquoise, they’re not on sale.

“I like those,” I gush to Rosie. “They’re absolutely fab.”

“Go on then find one in your size, let me see the price? Okay, yes find one in your size and try it on and if it fits, I’ll get it for you.” I run over to the rack shove rows of skirts one by one to find my size in a colour that I like. I find several but settle on a turquoise mini skirt with a kick pleat and a big blue red and green zip sewn on the front with a kind of key chain ring on it.’

Moving swiftly to the curtained off changing room I change with multiple other women milling around in various stages of undress. I didn’t like showing my underwear so I put the skirt on over my trousers and peeped out of the room motioning to Rosie who was waiting outside.

“Rosie?” I want my sister’s opinion.
“Rosie, do you think I can wear this? “ I ask tentatively.
“I don’t see why not Angie. What’s your problem?” Rose Marie asks.
“My knobbly knees, I’ve got knobbly knees and….” I’m grimacing at my knees which are covered by my trousers, Rose Marie cuts me off with,
“Stop your nonsense. Knobbly knees?” and she kisses her teeth, “Chuups” and cuts her eyes at me.
I get the skirt.

In other shopping trips to C& A, I buy a “tent dress” in shocking pink. It has a striped green and yellow Kipper tie and I know I look like the cat’s pajamas or the cat’s meow as I don’t care about my knees anymore.

Blue Paraffin

 “Girls you need to go and buy some paraffin after school,” Mum reminds my sisters Rose Marie and Patsy. They need to walk a long way twice a week to buy five gallons of blue paraffin (Mum says blue paraffin is better than pink paraffin).

Only Patsy and Mum have winter boots, so Rosie needs to wear Mum’s boots. Mum says, “come child I know the newspaper I’ve stuffed in the toe is uncomfortable, but what to do? Your feet will freeze in your ordinary shoes, there’s too much slush on the ground.”

It has snowed and the snow makes everything look pretty. It hides stuff like dog dudu, and when it begins to thaw all the dirtiness that’s been underneath mixes in with the snow and makes it grey, white, and brown. If a dog or cat or human pees on the snow, it becomes yellow.

Dog dudu is the worse, you don’t know when you’re treading in it until your shoe comes up with layers of slush and shit. Anyway, Rosie must wear Mum’s boots to walk the three miles to get the paraffin, her feet make swishing noises in them and slip out as she walks. I know her feet must hurt as she has corns on her toes where newspaper rubs the skin off as she slips and slides down the street.

 For me walking in Mum’s shoes is fun. They make a clip clop noise around the house when I wear them. Rosie can’t wear her shoes at the same time as Mum’s boots, so it’s not fun. Mum says the doctor has told her that if I wear tight shoes it will make my eyes worse.

I always tell Mum if my shoes are too tight, except for once when I get some nice shoes and they hurt my toes, but I tell Mum they don’t as I want to keep wearing them. Me limping makes Mum suspect that they hurt, and I need to confess the truth. In school we learn a poem about shoes,

“New shoes, new shoes,

Red and pink and blue shoes,

Tell me what would you choose

If they let you buy?”

It was true I’d buy the “Buckle shoes” and what I got were “Tuff shoes.” They were supposed to last forever, but they really were “wipe-them-on-the mat shoes.” And impossible to destroy.

When Patsy and Rosie come back home with the two plastic containers of paraffin, we pour it through a white funnel into our heater in the bedroom. Mum sometimes lights the gas oven and that heats up the dining room and kitchen. My father has bought a secondhand television.

Come to think of it we’ve never had a new television set. We like the adverts for paraffin. “Esso blue, dum,dum, dum Esso, blue, Esso Esso, Esso dum dum dum blue,” is the jingle that we sing along too each time the advertisement comes on television. The paraffin heater we’ve in the everything room is green with a long body it has a flat top and you can cook things on it.

Paraffin heaters are great except for the smell and the fact that they could start fires, or you or someone else could get burned. Once baby brother Paul topples a saucepan of milk off the paraffin stove where it’s being heated and it burns his feet. He has to go to the hospital, and each day Mum changes his bandages and puts funny smelling cream on his pink blistered skin. He still carries the faint scars on the creases of his ankles. 

Hospital Memories

It’s probably a few days later that for one of many times pneumonia comes calling and I end up in an oxygen tent at the Paddington Green Children’s hospital. But because memories are never secure, I may have conflated these events in my head. One thing I do remember is that l like the waiting area in Paddington Green Children’s hospital. They had rocking horses there, some large and some small. They were magical. If I was well enough Mum would allow me to ride one of them. I wished that I could take one home, and for years I prayed for a pony. At church they said if you prayed and really believed then your prayers would be answered. This is why I prayed and believed that one day when I returned home there would be a rocking horse, and as I grew older the rocking horse prayer turned into a pony with a white star like Black Beauty and then into a Palomino golden horse. None of my prayers were answered. I recall being in a hospital bed saying,

“Mum I feel as if someone is sitting on my chest and they won’t get off me.” I complain to my mother. I didn’t like the plastic canopy that covered me. I’m overjoyed when they take the oxygen tent off. As I recover in the crisp white cold sheets of my hospital bed, a little boy with flax like hair and blue stripped pajamas chats to me none stop. His name is Tommy and he teaches me a song,

 “Yum- yum, chewing gum stick it up a lady’s bum, when it’s brown pull it down, yum, yum chewing gum.” It makes me feel so proud when I’ve learnt all the words and I feel excited to sing it to my mother when she visits. My mother is the only person that visits me and to tell the truth I don’t want anyone else to visit. I wished she would stay.

My Mum is not amused with my new song. “Who taught you that?”  I point to the little boy in the bed opposite and say “that kid over there. “Don’t point it’s rude,” my mother says and scowls her disapproval. Thinking back, I’m not sure if the disapproval was of my pointing finger or Tommy. My mother continues,

“Well, I never, the children of today.” She never says or calls us “kids” she always tells us not to use that “American word.” “A kid is the offspring of a goat and I’m not a goat!” “I don’t want to hear that from you again. You understand me?”

“Yes Mum,” I reply committing the rhyme to memory.

The nurses in their white aprons and funny hats perched on their heads try to get me to eat,

“Come on luv, you must have something,” they extoll. 

I make excuses, the truth is I just don’t feel hungry.

“I don’t like porridge.” I lie. At home I live mainly on a diet of ‘Cheeselet Crackers’ tiny square cheesy crackers and my bottle of milk. I drink out of a bottle until a little after the age of five and start school. I probably would have taken my bottle to school if it was allowed, but I can still drink out of it when I get home.

“Would you like cornflakes then?” A nurse asks with a smile in her voice. Finding it difficult to breathe, I croak out an answer.  “Yes.” I really don’t want to speak it hurts my chest to speak. I want to just nod my head. But my mother has cautioned me with “it is rude to just nod your head,” and it sounds like an alarm in my brain. The truth is I hate the cold milk they pour on my cornflakes. At home if we’ve cornflakes as a treat, my Mum uses warm milk, and it must be “gold top” with the yellow cream at the top of the bottle. In the summer we keep our milk bottle in cold water on the window sill so that it doesn’t curdle. Sometimes my Mum lets Paul and me put the cream from the top of the milk bottle into a jar and we take turns in shaking it. Eventually the cream turns into globs of soft butter. So, lying in the metal framed bed I stir the cornflakes around in the bowl until it’s a mushy mess and leave it uneaten.

 Each day my Mum visits and as she’s leaving says to me,

“Ann Ann.”  “Ann Ann” is what my baby brother Paul calls me. “Ann, Ann, do you want me to bring you anything from home?’ My answer is always the same,

 “May I have a corned beef sandwich?” I have to say “may” as my Mum reminds us all frequently of the difference between “can” and “may” and so I make sure to phrase my question correctly. (Canned “bully beef” is a treat we’ve every Saturday one can of corned beef serves five to seven people and visitors too). I’m too weak to eat anything, but I still ask and my mother brings them, little triangles of homemade crusty white bread with a dark red filling which find a home in the dustbin when the nurses spot them.