Article for Teachers

Memory Is a Cozy Old Blanket

Giving students of all ages a sense of the past

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.

                                I Remember

                                I remember
                                taking my
                                great grandmother to the store
                                walking in the store
                                and buying this and that

                                I remember
                                walking to the park,
                                smelling the air
                                and looking at the grass
                                and flowers

                                I remember
                                lottery tickets in her hand
                                with five dollars
                                she handing the money to me and
                                me saying, “No, thanks.”

                                I remember
                                seeing her in a coffin
                                not moving at all
                                I remember she passed away
                                dead, gone.
                                     —Brian Tu

                                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.
                                     —Danielle Shelton

                                Uncle Sammy

                                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
                                     —Erica Gamble

                                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.
                                     —Quyen Ha

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:

                                I Remember

                                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 

                                Passed Down

                                If you wander 
                                Thumb    through 
                                Truly curious 
                                of its beginnings 
                                Contents, meaning 
                                Of dusty-rusty-peeling 
                                Something    Paw Paw’s 
                                Grandma     thought 
                                was no good. 
                                “Throw it out” 
                                she’d exclaim 
                                in French.

                                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 
                                your great-grandfather. 
                                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
                                falling-down house
                                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
                                about it.
                                I watch
                                a laughing angel
                                till you fall
                                asleep to her
                                voice & crickets
                                that tiny mighty mind
                                gripping tight
                                the family history.
                                     —Jennifer Cooper

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.

Opal Palmer Adisa, "Memory Is a Cozy Old Blanket" from Old Faithful: 18 Writers Present Their Favorite Writing Assignments. Copyright © 1995 by Opal Palmer Adisa.  Reprinted by permission of Teachers & Writers Collaborative.
Originally Published: August 15th, 2016

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...