The Mnemonics Gene, Fifth-Grade Drama, And Some Lessons From Outdoor Science School

This week the most extraordinary thing happened. Beatrice was studying for a geography test, filling in a blank map of the United States, and her dad sent me a video of her memorizing all the states’ names and locations by reciting a long, convoluted mnemonic device that included lines like “Kansas isn’t where you think it would be because it starts with K, an unexpected letter.”

This is exactly what I do.

I wrote about a few of my mnemonics on my long-defunct blog:

While driving a car, in order to remember which pedal is the brake and which is the gas: “So, you know how when you use your turn signal, up is right, like up, towards God and heaven, and the right hand of God, and left is down, away from God? So you’d think that with the gas and the brake, the brake would be on the right, and the gas would be on the left, since the brake is better than the gas. But it’s the opposite of that, because driving is hard.”

While entering my credit card into an online form, in order to remember whether a certain digit is a 6 or a 7: “You know how you always want a number to be a 7 when it isn’t? Except this is the one time you actually want it to be a 6, but then it’s a 7. Life is like that, I guess.”

While washing my hair, in order to remember which decorative container holds the shampoo and which the conditioner: “Pink is for shampoo and orange is for conditioner, which just seems right, and this time it is right, because sometimes things really do work out.”

These are my everyday mnemonics. I also have dozens more to versify bits of mathematics, science, history, and foreign languages. Beatrice has an everyday one, too, for remembering which way to turn the bathtub faucet handles, that begins, “The wall is the store, and the toilet is home, and the taps are two brothers who have to go to the store to get groceries and the water is the groceries…”

I have never mentioned my mnemonic devices to Beatrice, nor recited them in her presence, and yet somehow she independently arrived at this exact same habit. This was the first time in the almost eleven years I’ve been a parent that I was dumbstruck by a similarity between me and one of my children. Of course, the children are like me in some ways, and like their dad in others, but mostly in the very general ways in which many people are like many others: they are extroverted or introverted, focused or distractable, they like sports or science or reading or math. But how on earth had Beatrice and I come to agree that K is, in fact, a very unexpected letter?

I often joke that all first-time parents should have to get “It’s Not About You” tattooed on their forearm. Your children’s failures and triumphs are not yours, of course, and the things they love and leave are not pronouncements on your habits and values. The most respectful way to love your children is to honor their strangeness.

This reminded me of these lines by the poet Kahlil Gibran, from The Prophet:

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

But just now, when I went back to copy these lines, I remembered that the next line is, “You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.”

In fact, what I love most about the children is the ways in which they are not like me, are better than me, the way they seem to have been born with habits of mind and heart I still struggle to learn: Beatrice’s fearless creativity; Arthur’s gentle self-possession; William’s uncompromising commitment to doing the hard thing.

Next week Beatrice is going to Outdoor Science School (OSS), a week-long outdoor science and nature program for all fifth-graders in the Los Angeles area. For five days the entire fifth grade class will go on hikes, eat in the mess hall, and sleep in cabins.

I went to OSS when I was Beatrice’s age and it was one of the most formative experiences of my life. I spent the entire school year leading up to it absolutely terrified. I had never been away from my parents for longer than one night. I was an extremely picky eater and didn’t know what I would be served there. I had never spent time in nature and I worried about everything from ice-cold showers to bears. I was extremely frightened of insects, in particular. There were rumors about a mandatory obstacle course that I imagined as something like a ropes course with no nets, a hundred feet off the ground.

What’s more, I was new to the school that year, and when I arrived I found that all the other girls had already picked their bunkmates the year before. I was the fifth girl in a friend group of five, unattached. I was largely unknown at the school and unpopular with those who did know me, and the only way I was going to get a bunkmate would be as another odd-numbered girl’s last choice. Confronting my overwhelming fears about food and ropes and bugs was bad enough without doing it alongside a girl I didn’t know and who probably resented being stuck with me instead of one of her actual friends. OSS was all we talked about that year and by the time we boarded the buses to go, I had spent months in an absolute agony of embarrassment and terror.

Beatrice, too, has been thinking about OSS all year. Her attitude is one of pure excitement. Unlike me at her age, Beatrice has already spent tons of time in nature. She started spending weeks away from home when she was only five years old. She does not get homesick. She is not afraid of anything. OSS was my first time being alone, but in many ways Beatrice has always been alone, blithely bumping up against the social world like a hamster in one of those clear plastic balls.

Fifth grade is the year Beatrice decided she wanted to be a part of that world. She has friends now, and enemies too, in an ever-shifting web of alliances (her best friend is named Leia and her worst enemy is named Leah, so you can imagine what that’s like for me). Every day after school Beatrice recounts her social trials and triumphs and I listen with first embarrassment and then a fierce protective love, as though I’m defending her against not only her present critics but her own future shame.

Beatrice is changing, of course, as we all do, but now in that accelerated way that starts in early adolescence, She has new tastes and new opinions every day. Many of them are not mine. If I’m being perfectly honest, I sometimes miss the old Beatrice, the one who was obsessed with Greek mythology instead of Taylor Swift. (Last Thanksgiving Beatrice’s teacher had her list three things she was thankful for and she picked food, “my baby sister,” and Taylor Swift.) I miss the little girl who was a receptacle for my own tastes and not the independent explorer of her own cultural milieu, but then being an independent explorer is one thing about Beatrice that has never changed at all.

Beatrice started making an OSS packing list in September. Her current list, many times revised, includes “a few good books,” scrunchies, “everything I own that is plaid,” “printouts of campfire songs,” and a hair dryer, even though she’s never once used a hair dryer in her entire life.

It has been really hard for me to see her prepare for OSS and not bring in all the things OSS meant to me. I have been gently bracing her for not getting picked for a bunkmate, reminding her that she will have a great time even in a cabin without her friends. Beatrice, meanwhile, is charging headlong in her hamster ball, not even entertaining the notion that things might not work out. In this way she is — not like me.

I was assigned a bunkmate, a stranger. I can’t remember her now, but she was nice enough, and the whole cabin bonded over the trials and triumphs of a week at camp. The food was fine. The obstacle course was optional. The cabins were overrun with daddy-long-legs. All of us shrieked over them in real fear at the outset, and then in mock fear, and then the shrieking itself became a hilarious/obnoxious eleven-year-old inside joke and by the end the daddy-long-legs didn’t bother me at all.

In the intervening years, I’ve often thought about how important OSS was for me. It taught me that I could exist without my parents or even my few friends. It taught me that I could do something frightening and come out okay on the other side. It taught me also about the peace and comfort to be found in nature. I don’t want to make it sound like Survivor — this was a very low-key outdoor experience — but I credit OSS for showing me that the natural world is not there for your validation or education or enlightenment, the natural world is not about you at all. That’s what allows me to love it purely, without asking for anything back. Against the changing whims of my fretful existence, the outdoors just is. As Beatrice heads into being a teenager, I will try to remember this lesson, that the things you love for being only themselves are the things you can love forever.

Writer for Catapult, Longreads, The Awl, The Toast, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, and so on. Owner of After-Party Taxidermy. Working on a book about Halloween.

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