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An Ode to My Father

My father is a detailed family historian who is rarely without his camera. He spends his days relishing in small moments and stopping time—just for an instant—with a keen sense of shutter speed and visual composition. I must thank my father for that. In his home office are metal boxes of Kodachrome slides, still vibrant after decades, chronicling my braces and bad hair, and all other forms of awkwardness that continue to transcend time. Beyond his camera, my father tells stories. He reminisces about growing up in West Toronto, a stone’s throw from High Park and the Junction. I’ve heard countless yarns of mischievous uncles, Christmas mornings complete with goalie pads and hockey skates, and carefree trips to a rental cottage on Lake Huron in the heyday of his youth. 

I’m thankful for the memories he shares, but my gratitude doesn’t end there. Back in elementary school, my father transformed the way I thought about memory.

My Father taught me how to remember.

It’s a gift that changed my life.

Many details of that fateful day are fuzzy, but others are not. I was studying for a test on Greek history or mythology, I think, and I was probably in Grade 4 or 5. My notebook was open to a pre-printed synopsis of a classic story on white paper, saturated with the distinct blue-purple ink of my era, straight from the school’s ditto machine. Back then I knew that studying meant work. But I didn’t know how to make that work efficient. 

My father entered my room to call me for dinner. I sat hunched over my notebook, eyebrows furrowed, my concentration deep. He asked how I was studying. I explained my approach. At that time, I memorized passages word for word, sentence by sentence. When the test came, I mentally recited those words in order, line by line, until I hit upon the section that answered each question.

My Dad taught me a better way. “Just think about the main points,” he said (or something like that)—and “stop memorizing each word.”

Suddenly, insight.

As a neuropsychologist, I blame my inability to think flexibly back then on my brain’s developing frontal lobe that simply lacked the capacity to find a better way. My father fast-tracked my thinking about memory with explicit instruction. He taught me that I could manipulate my approach—and my memory—in ways that decreased my test anxiety and supported my achievement. From there, my insight grew. Soon I designed my own strategies, converting information into distinct pictures and funny stories that made my memories even more resistant to fading when I needed them most. 

Years later I learned about memory strategies, called mnemonics, in an Introductory Psychology class at university. I still don’t know how I crafted strategies as a child that closely resembled those used by the ancient Greeks. But I’m thankful I did. No matter how nervous I got about tests and exams–and I got dreadfully nervous–I knew that facts were locked in my mind, and that I could retrieve them, thanks to the strategies I had used.  

As a psychologist now, I see too many kids and teens with significant test anxiety. Most students have never been taught explicitly how to study in ways that support their memory for information. Books on memory strategies exist for college students, and some have emerged for teens. But research shows that simple games and strategies can support memory in younger children, too.

And learning about memory can be fun!

I’m on a mission—and it’s not about turning kids into super-memorizers. It’s about teaching kids how their brain works. It’s about sharing the wonders of a structure called the hippocampus. It’s about teaching intentional decision making that can help make memories stick.

My Dad’s advice got me through school, decreased my test anxiety, and ignited a passion for memory and neuroscience that has never faded. 

Thank you, Dad, for teaching me how to remember.

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