There’s this test that I’m taking as a way to procrastinate on taking the GRE called the CSET, and before I go on, can somebody please tell me why all standardized tests insist on having acronyms as names? No one knows what the acronym stands for anyway, so it’d be much more fun to just call it something cool instead of being bound to the constraints of an acronym. Do you know what I mean?
Anyway, the CSET is essentially a test that exists to ensure that people who want to become teachers in California are qualified to, well, teach. As a candidate for a multi-subject credential, I have to take the CSET Multiple Subjects(TM) exam. Which as you guessed, includes multiple subjects! I took my first practice test the other day, which served to confirm what I kind of already knew: while my skills in child development, language, textual analysis, basic algebra, biology, and even chemistry and physics (!!!) are thankfully up to snuff, history is difficult. Most of it eludes me completely, and what I do remember comes in pieces.
Before I explain that further, here’s the thing you have to know. I like history. More specifically, I like revolutionary history. Even more specifically, I like a certain bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten…
But despite my seemingly narrow and specialized interest, history is cool.
Studying history for this exam came as an exciting prospect, like maybe I could finally actually learn history for the first time in my life. But as I dug deeper into my studies, it occurred to me that while I certainly did not learn history on a meaningful level during my time in the public school system, to say that I “never learned history” is just not true. I did learn it, well enough to pass my 7th grade exam on feudalism, or create a magazine about Tecumseh in the 11th grade. The problem is that for the most part, it has all been lost.
What I do remember comes in pieces. I remember staying up until 11pm (gasp) to make a poster about Constantinople in the 7th grade. I remember churning butter on Colonial Day in the 5th grade. I remember struggling to spell cuneiform in the 6th grade. I remember reading excepts of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the 8th grade.
But the truly frightening thing is that when I think about my own life during those time periods, well, that comes in pieces too.
If you’re looking for the proper reaction to that, I believe the word is “yikes.”
But let’s look at it in a more optimistic way. The fact that day-to-day life, whether in ancient history or in your own life, is so easily forgotten doesn’t necessarily mean that life is meaningless, or that my history education was doomed by nature. Rather, it calls into question what the purpose of experience really is, if it is not remembering every little detail, or even some of the bigger details.
I’ve come up with two contenders. The first is Building Blocks. When you think about how little of the information we learn in elementary school is retained, it’s a little disheartening (especially for an elementary school teacher). And yet, it’s hard to make a case that education for children is unimportant or unnecessary. What we learn as children, whether in school or in the rest of our lives, is the foundation of who we become. At its best, childhood teaches us how to persevere, how to be brave, how to be kind, how to love. And if you can’t remember every detail of it, well, that’s just the price of growing up.
The second is Moments. We forget a lot of things, and not just the bad things, like Freud says. We forget jokes that made us laugh so hard we cried, and we forget concerts and first kisses and summer days at the arcade. It sucks. But then there are the things that we remember. I remember that one time we ate leftover chicken wings for lunch and then went to Albany Beach where my dog dug a huge hole in the sand. I remember one day at softball practice where Jane and I raced to see who could fill the bucket first, and ended up crashing into each other and falling into the grass. I remember unwrapping monkey slippers on Christmas and playing catch with my neighbor before school while we waited for my brother to pack his backpack and the taste of that weird lemon-flavored gum that I won in the 5th grade. We don’t always remember the most important things, or even the things that make even close to a full picture, but we have these moments. These are the pieces.
I guess what I’ve found is that the things we forget are not necessarily those that are unimportant, Because in some haphazard team effort between synaptic pruning and the subconscious, we forget things we wish we’d remember, and remember things we’d rather forget. What’s left are the pieces, reminding us of our pasts while pushing us on to fill the gaps with something new.