An Introduction To The Classroom's Rote Routine

April 14, 2007|By JACQUES KELLY

Thank you, Baltimore Catechism, for a bonus that had nothing to do with theology. You taught me how to memorize.

While hardly a ticket to heaven, the Baltimore Catechism was a hot-seller during early years of my education. This textbook of Roman Catholic belief was recognized this week by one of its publishers at a religious educators' conference held in the city. That little volume deserved the applause.

On the first day of first grade in September 1956, Sister Mary Agnes launched the questions and answers this little blue paperback posed. The key was memorization; The teacher could ask the questions of anyone in the classroom, and you had better have the right response ready. Interpretation, discussion and dialogue came later.

The memorization also helped with that longish prayer, the noontime Angelus, a beautiful tribute accompanied by a distinctive and prolonged ring on the sister's monastery bell: three separate strikes of three, followed by a joyous peal of at least 21 claps. Lunch followed immediately.

The catechism left little room for questions, and that fit right into the classroom routine. It meshed with the memorization of poetry and the facts of Maryland history, mythology, state capitals, rivers and continents. By 3 p.m., you were groomed for a Jeopardy! contestant's spot.

Once we had knocked off the catechism questions, we could move on to memorizing several stanzas of "The Star-Spangled Banner," which carried the bonus of a field trip to Fort McHenry.

Being good Marylanders, we also learned the state song by heart, even if we didn't quite understand its lyrics. Also, all students had to know that it was written by James Ryder Randall.

The catechism approach dovetailed neatly with poetry. Nearly 50 years later, I can still recite "October's Party" with only a little peeking at helpful Web sites, where the forgotten is electronically remembered.

By the eighth grade, we were committing the sonnets of Shakespeare to memory. It helped reduce the horror of being cast in a play. Every so often, a teacher would require you to stand at the head of the class and recite to your classmates. It was a brutal trial, but if you could face your friends, you could face your enemies, too.

Life is full of unintended consequences. Memorization often requires a coach and, in my case, that could mean drafting the adults around the house for help. On school nights, my mother, a very unlikely candidate, would be issuing the questions about the Portuguese navigators to my sister. Aunt Cora was called in for Latin verbs. She was patient, smoked a Chesterfield cigarette constantly, and had an A&P bag of cookies available as reward for a good recitation.

And a liberal arts curriculum required at least a nod to math and the sciences. So in college, I enrolled in a low-level calculus class. I would never truly understand what was going on, but I faked it through rigorous memorization and learned what the card sharks know: You can memorize numbers, too.

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