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

Summer Block
7 min readJan 15, 2020

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…

Summer Block

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.