18 March 2011

remember, remember

There are certain pieces of semi-useless knowledge that have stuck with me through the years. These nuggets of wisdom are more often than not attached to a mnemonic.

First of all, the way mnemonic is spelled just looks wrong. If there were a mnemonic to remind me how to spell mnemonic, I would use it endlessly.

That’s a lie. I don’t think I’ve ever typed the word mnemonic before writing this post, and I don’t think I will again. But it would be nice to know how to spell mnemonic for future reference.

Yes, I realize that the purpose of a mnemonic is to aid in remembering something. But the reason people need mnemonics in the first place is because the thing that they are trying to remember isn’t memorable. And with good reason. Usually that information isn’t worth shit.

In physics, we had to remember the difference between volts and amperes while studying electricity. What is the difference scientifically? I have no idea. Something about currents? But I do know that it’s the volts that jolt and the mills that kill. In other words, while voltage may shock a person, the amps (milliamperes, in keeping with the mnemonic) are what will do the most damage.

I admit now that I am not perfect. Sometimes I mistype. Sometimes (gasp) I even forget how to spell words correctly, but thanks to I before E except after C, I will never misspell receive or achieve. I will even remember to make the exception for neighbor and reign.

But, there is another spelling mnemonic that I use quite frequently. I’m not sure why, but at this point I’m not even surprised anymore, but I use the word schadenfreude with alarming frequency. For those of you who are not familiar with the concept, it entails deriving happiness from seeing another person suffer. Yes, this lovely word finds its way into my conversations. I’m not sure what that tells you about me. Anyways, to remember the correct spelling of this etymological gem, I think of the musical, Avenue Q. At the end of one song, incidentally entitled “Schadenfreude,” a character (Gary Coleman), spells schadenfreude, but with rhythm and intonation: S-C-H-A-D-E-N-F-R-E-U-D-E! Whenever I am unsure about how to spell it, I sing it in my head. Or out loud, depending on my company.

Of course, mnemonics are applicable in mathematics as well. When I was an elementary school student, I had issues. Call me a huge nerd, but I had issues staying interested in the material for the duration of the time we were studying the topic at hand. I’d learn the topic, then get bored and antsy until we moved on to something new. I would finish my homework on the car ride home, which of course made my mom incredibly happy because she would have to deal with a Kayla with a bunch of free time. She asked my teacher to assign me extra homework, but I would finish two weeks’ worth of reading in one night.

But, of course, I have my weaknesses. As my fourth grade teacher discovered, it’s rapid-fire mathematics. Every Wednesday after recess, we would enter the classroom to find a sheet of paper face down on each of our desks. After we turned the papers over, we would have exactly one minute to answer as many multiplication problems as we could. All of a sudden, I wasn’t the first in the class. I was second. I figured now was as good a time as any to give up. There was no way I could catch up. I could fill out a map of the United States, complete with capital cities, in less than ten minutes. I could rattle off every president in order. I could color like a boss. But those damn tests had me stumped.

I mean, I knew the answers. But the pressure from the timer and the knowledge that someone was better than me (even though it was marginally so) freaked me out. So I taught myself mnemonics that were tailored specifically to me. They probably don’t make sense to anyone. But I grouped the multipliers and their product together by forming associations. I can’t even put them into words in an eloquent way. The only one that makes logical sense is 7x8. The answer is 56 because, sequentially, the number line follows 5678.

Perhaps my favorite mnemonic is one that literally contributes nothing to my academic career at the present. When I was in high school I was really into taking honors and AP classes (big surprise). I took AP Biology because I legitimately thought that I would pursue a degree in bio in college. Granted, I still had no idea what I wanted to do with myself after graduation, but I thought that going into biology would afford me many opportunities. Then, when I remembered that writing has always been my dream, I realized that I did not want to be a science major. But that story is for another time.

Anyways, the AP asks that students remember a lot of details about classification of organisms via the categories of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. The categories start extremely broad and narrow in specificity. In that sense, the procession is important. To remember the categories, my teacher threw out a few mnemonics: kids playing catch on freeways get squished, kings play chess on fat green stools, kids prefer cheese over fried green spinach. But the one mnemonic that will stick with me forever? King Phillip called out for great sex.

What has this trip down memory lane taught me? Elementary school nerds grow up to be well-adjusted, mature adults.


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