Rote Memorization What’s Left After Decades of Nonuse

Rote memorization – something I had to do often in school and I hated it. Johan Horak’s Google+ post about his experience with learning English and Shakespeare brought my experience with the Bard back to memory.

It seems of the many things we had to memorize and recite flawlessly to our teachers the most common were Shakespeare passages. For good or ill over the course of junior high and senior high I had to memorize and recite the following from Shakespeare 1) “out damned spot” speech in Macbeth, 2) St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, 3) What light from yonder window breaks soliloquy from Romeo & Juliet, 4) To Be or Not To be from Hamlet, 5) Speak of Me as I Am from Othello his final speech in the play, and finally 6) a sonnet of our choice, being the odd bird I am I chose Sonnet 130 I was the only one my Senior English teacher had up to that point that choice THAT one. LOL!

Also I had to memorize the introduction to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in both modern English and Old English. I used to make Aaron laugh when he was little by reciting the old English one because you can pick up some words in it and others are absurd sounding to our modern ear. “Talk that silly talk again Mommy.” I’d get to “longen folk to goon on pilgrimages” he’d be roaring in belly laughter.

How much I remember of these? Not much, now that I look over the originals. Yet when I started reading them I found that old memory came back and I could pick up and recite. I remembered fragments of them except for the Old English which stayed with me like the School Rock Constitution Preamble Song – no I can’t really tell you what it is but once I start it all rolls out with the cadence of poem or song. I have to say now if I want to gain meaning from that I have to slow down recite the Old English then give thought to translate it to modern – I don’t remember any of the modern English translation – it wasn’t as fun to say nor sounded nearly as silly.

What I did remember was the gist of what is being said – 1) our wrong deeds are a guilty stain that often only we see but our guilt shows them to others, 2) soldiers have paid a price for the freedom and comfort societies enjoy, 3) when in the throes of new love of there is nothing else in our world but that will fade as reality intrudes, 4) life and living is a decision we should consciously make to make the most of it, 5) all of us make stupid mistakes, some harmful ones we can’t take back, and we hope when these acts are remembered by others they do so with some compassion. Even if we deserve it or not, we hope they do, and 6) you don’t have to be an ideal beauty to be loved.

As much as I hated the rote memorization and recitation of these I can say I now appreciate it. I spent time with great words and had to consider them over and over even if I didn’t want to do it in order to be able to recite. But in the end looking back I gained important life lessons from the great works. Those are six great life lessons that would serve any one well. I can thank many English and Lit teachers for making me take the time to consider them so much that they are with me over 30 years later. Also makes me have a tinge of regret that Aaron never had to commit sections of great works to memory.

So maybe I can’t recite these in total any more but I think honestly I’ve gotten the value and beauty of the words.

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