Hospitalized and homebound for more than three years didn’t give me a free pass from education. At 12 years old, I figured I didn’t have to go to school because I couldn’t. That thought was soon dispelled when I was informed I was going to have a tutor from New Brunswick High School visit me three times a week. “Oh no,” I thought, “one on one with a teacher, I’ll never survive.” It turned out to be one of the best experiences in my life.
The hallways in that New Jersey hospital were crowded, noisy and seemed frantically busy. A tall, well-built, middle-aged man carrying a leather briefcase stood in the doorway of my room, asked if he could come in and sat down beside my bed. With a compassionate and almost sad smile, he reached over my bed to touch my motionless right hand and informed me he was my new teacher, Wickliffe McCracken.
His silver-gray hair was almost touching the back of his suit collar. The wire-framed glasses he wore seemed fastened to the end of his nose and his steel blue eyes were not a true reflection of his kindness of heart, gentleness of spirit and compassion for my circumstance. At the time, he seemed more like a friend than a teacher. Maybe that’s what great teachers are, we just don’t realize it until later in life.
We talked for a while, then he slowly removed the dreaded textbooks from his leather library and placed them on the stand next to my bed. All I could see were the binders with the dreaded words: chemistry, biology, algebra, English and the picture of a slide rule on the cover of a trigonometry text. Bad news. I knew I was in deep trouble.
At the time, I barely had the strength to lift a textbook. But Wickliffe figured out how to make it easier for me to learn. I memorized everything the first time I read it thanks to the world of Bruno Furst and mnemonics.
Wickliffe taught his high school drama students mnemonics to help them memorize their lines. Furst, a French-American born in 1891, wrote a book on improving memory by using “pegs,” or word associations to remember numbers. As an example: The first 15 digits of the mathematical constant pi (3.14159265358979) can be encoded as “Now I need a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics.” Each word contains the number of letters representing the sequential numbers. “Now” contains three letters representing the first number, 3. “Mechanics” contain nine letters and represents the last number, 9.
Abbreviations, colors, rhymes and pictures can also be used as identifying pegs. We’re all familiar with the phrases “I before E except after C” and “Every good boy does fine,” two mnemonics we learn at a young age.
Wickliffe and I developed two styles of our own, fashioned within the concepts of Furst. We expanded the vowel-consonant schematic to include hundreds of pictures. Then, we used the 78-card tarot deck that I was already familiar with as pegs. Combining the two, I would remember hundreds of specific things every day.
Using tarot cards was easy and fun, especially remembering the names of U.S. presidents. Millard Fillmore was our 13th president and the last member of the Whig party to be elected to office. Tarot card 13 is the “death” card. My picture, or peg, is of Fillmore’s head being chopped off by the Grim Reaper and a wig floating in the breeze. If the peg is funny enough, you’ll remember it for life. Now all of you will remember who the 13th president was.
I will always be indebted to Wickliffe McCracken for teaching me mnemonics and how to learn. Today, we spend millions teaching our children what they need to learn but we don‘t take the time to teach them how to learn. Every child learns by association. Mnemonics is just another structured form of association. If society’s goal is to increase our graduation rate, the basic concepts of mnemonics should be taught with the same beginning principles and foundation of reading writing and arithmetic in all elementary schools.
David Farside is a Sparks resident and political activist. The polemics of his articles can be discussed at email@example.com.