Memory Is a Cozy Old Blanket
I have been teaching writing, primarily poetry, to students in the second grade through college for many years, and I have found that the same lesson that I use successfully with college students works just as well with younger students. I call it “Memory Is a Cozy Old Blanket.”
Although I have never done this exercise as the first session of my workshops with students, I have done so in workshops for writers and other adult participants. With junior high and high school students, I play music to set the mood, often jazz. (Quincy Jones’s Body Heat album works very well, as does any type of relaxing music). I believe in jumping right in, and allowing students to take off as soon as I sense that they know what I expect from them. But before I do this, I like to do some lead-in discussion with the class. The amount of time I spend on this varies with the age and skills of the students. I begin by relating a personal anecdote, usually from my childhood:
“When I was about five years old I used to love to crawl under our house that was built on stilts. Often when my mother called me, I would pretend not to hear her, all the while lying quietly and laughing that I could not be seen. From where I lay I would watch the feet of adults moving about, often in search of me. One day, as I lay amused, pretending not to hear my mother calling me, I was suddenly aroused by Spotty, our cat, who was dragging a dead rat by the tail. I was terrified of rats. I tried to stand up. I bumped my head and crawled screaming from under the house. That was the last time I pretended not to hear my mother calling me.”
After relating this personal anecdote, I say, “Think about all the things you remember: your name; birthdate; address; places; things; events. Can you remember all the things you did yesterday? Make a list, starting with the very first thing you did. Begin this way: Yesterday I remember waking at 6 a.m. Then string the memories together. Are you surprised at how much or how little you accomplished? Is there anything you would want to do differently? Try writing about yourself as if you’re writing about someone else.”
This warm-up activity is intended to get students to relax, to write quickly, and to have fun. I often do the activity along with students, on the board. When everyone is done, I usually take ten minutes to have a few students read their lists. This is often met with giggles or “dissing,” but also it gives students ideas. I have a number of variations on this warm-up activity.
Sometimes I do the warm-up by going around the room and having each student state what she or he had for dinner. There are always those who don’t remember, didn’t have dinner, or had something that produces laughter from the group. But this is part of the fun of this exercise.
Then I go on: “How come some days we can’t even remember what we ate for dinner the night before, yet we remember other things that happened long ago, when we were very young? What is the first thing you remember about yourself? Jot it down. How old were you? Do you remember the name of your first friend? Your first birthday party? Your first day at your very first school? Don’t be afraid to remember someone who has died or who has moved away. Learn to honor and trust all your memories. Think of that special person. See yourself with them. Relive some of the happy moments. Write a series often memories, begin each with ‘I remember. ...’ Memory is selective. Because we cannot remember everything, we unconsciously select what we will remember.”
Then I ask: “What do these memories teach you about yourself? What feelings do you associate with the different memories?”
After the students do this warm-up activity, I ask them to write a poem or prose piece or even a play in which they use the voices and actions of other people associated with a specific memory.
If individual students get stuck, I may say, “Sometimes our memories are a shield, protecting us from reliving bad things that happen to us, or sadness we’ve experienced. Sometimes our memories are a green light, leading us to a certain place where we need to go. Sometimes they are a friend that keeps us company when we’re alone. Sometimes they can be an enemy, keeping us from doing what we need to do, stalking us with fear of a past failure.”
The poems below are lightly edited first drafts by students from Bret Harte Junior High in Oakland, California. These students were very quiet throughout the entire writing activity, and they wrote for roughly twenty minutes.
great grandmother to the store
walking in the store
and buying this and that
walking to the park,
smelling the air
and looking at the grass
lottery tickets in her hand
with five dollars
she handing the money to me and
me saying, “No, thanks.”
seeing her in a coffin
not moving at all
I remember she passed away
Three Flights of Stairs
I remember walking up three flights of stairs
just to see if she was there.
I remember talking to her
sharing all my secrets
going to the movies
and playing jump rope
Or just sitting there enjoying each other’s company
playing video games at her house
laughing and talking
eating popcorn and talking about school.
Those times I’ll always remember.
I remember Uncle Sammy
His laugh, his smile, his way
The way he would cheer us up on a gloomy day
The way he drove his car
Taking me and others near and far
The way he danced at family parties
He danced pretty good for his age
The way he sang with his brothers
In their group, The Quartets
The way he was
I’ll never forget
The way he lay so still
In the hospital, now he is gone
I’ll never forget him
I remember Uncle Sammy
His laugh, his smile, his way
I Can Only Imagine
I search within me to remember how it was
But I just can’t remember
Is it because I was too young?
Parents told me it was dirty
Older sisters and brothers said it was fun
Everyone told me about the delicious fruits
They told me how cheap everything was
They told me it was hard to make money
I don’t remember a thing
I can only imagine
I imagine trees with tons of fruits on them
Kids running around laughing, having fun
Sometimes I wish I remembered those things
Sometimes I wish I knew how Vietnam was really like.
From students at California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland, I got other results. I was teaching a creative writing class in which students—most of whom have strong visual memories—could write either poetry or prose. With these young adults I began by turning out the lights and having them rest their heads on the table as I led them through a memory journey.
“Go back, all the way back to when you were so small you could not even turn over. See yourself. Are you there yet? What do you see? What do you notice about yourself? Now what do you remember? Your first memory of yourself. Where are you? Is anyone with you? How do you feel? Find that time, that memory when you were hurt or felt afraid. Don’t be afraid, it can’t hurt you anymore. What is important about that memory? Who is hurting you? Why? Go to another memory when you were still a child, maybe six or so. What do you see? Are you happy? What are you doing?”
On and on I led students up to their young-adult selves. All this took about fifteen minutes, as some students had difficulty settling down at first. After I led them through the memory journey, I told them to select any memory and write, and avoid using the words “I remember.” Here are some of their pieces:
My fifth grade prize shoes. Red imitation snakeskin with gold infinity
signs for buckles. I’d walk onto Bagby’s playground with these on, no
one would beat me. Played better tetherball on those days. Stephanie
Patterson called them the “Wizard of Oz” shoes. Other people just
called them “loud.”
But it wasn’t just the shoes. Mostly, I wore them with my polyester
lime-green dress. And yellow stretch shorts underneath. Got to. Play
double dodgeball, you got to be prepared. Guys look to nail all the girls,
especially in dresses, just to make them fall so they can peep under their
underwear or hear them gasp as they bounce on their backsides. The
red shoes were a perfect target too. On the days I’d wear that green
dress, with a little flared skirt, I remember thinking it was the sharpest
outfit. I know the concept of clashing colors never crossed my head in
the morning. This was power dressing.
Only color close to that green dress in nature is the insides of can-
taloupe or those hard, bright green Granny Smith apples. Used to see
them when I went with my mom to the old vegetable and fruit stand
five blocks from school. It was a family operation, a covered wooden
stand with lots of little areas where they arranged the fruit. If Mom was
shopping for a barbeque or picnic or dinner, we’d go to Cosentino’s. I
didn’t like grocery shopping but I’d go to look at the colors of the fruit
and packing crates. And for the smell. Everything smelled warmer,
sweeter as the day went on, mixed with dust stirred up from the rutted
dirt area where cars parked every whichway. My treat was to strip the
corn, or stroke the smooth eggplants in the next bin. Thumping the
melons was allowed so I’d check the watermelons and cantaloupes. The
cantaloupes looked just like tetherballs.
My tetherball partner, Grant, didn’t care about playing with a girl
just as long as we would win our challenges. He was my best playground
buddy. We’d play all kinds of games as a team but at tetherball, there
was no question: Grant was bad just by himself. Together we were
monsters. Even I was scared of his hits. He was lanky, bony, had freck-
les and a gap between his front teeth. And he was gruff. Didn’t think
anyone could play better than him, especially no girl. After nailing him
on a dodgeball shot, he wanted to play tetherball so he could redeem
himself. We almost tore the rope off the pole, we hit so hard. After that
we were friends. He stuck up for me and vice versa.
—A. M. Hardeman
If you wander
of its beginnings
Something Paw Paw’s
was no good.
“Throw it out”
The protest of her youngest
made her scowl just a moment
then lovingly pack it for the attic
back on Arts St. for her little boy
Bring it down!
Move it, move it
from Paw Paw’s
when he died,
to great-aunt Marie’s &
Grandma’s when they lived
on Marias St. in that
then the falling out between
Jacques & Marc.
That quiet spell
which didn’t last long
(never does in the South).
So when they agreed
it would be lil Emily’s
your mama got it
’cept she ain’t little no more.
Which is a good thing
since mama’s got
that big lap.
Hold ja in and
tell you all
a laughing angel
till you fall
asleep to her
voice & crickets
that tiny mighty mind
the family history.
Students, particularly adult students, have thanked me for this activity. We live in a culture that is focused on the now, so any opportunity to remember, to reflect, and to learn from our memories seems a welcome opportunity. For younger students, the benefit of this exercise is that it gets them to value things that have happened to them and their classmates, and begins to give them a real sense of the past.
Jamaican poet and writer Opal Palmer Adisa was born in Kingston. After a childhood education in British colonialist writers, Adisa came to the United States at the age of 15 and attended high school in New York City, where she encountered the work of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks as...