Wednesday, 18 July 2007


Our eldest has an amazing memory. By the time she was five, she knew the name of every single kid in her nursery school, over one hundred children.

"Who's that little boy?" I would ask, pointing to a child I vaguely recognized from a class two years under hers.

"That's Tatsuya."

"And his last name?"


"Doesn't he have a baby sister who's just started nursery school?"

"Yep. She's two."

"And what's her name?"


I tested her frequently, and found that she could correctly name every single child, from the six year olds in the most advanced class to the merest babies who had just entered the school. She got a new boy's name wrong once (his mother later assured me that almost everyone in the school confused him with his cousin) and was mortified for a whole week. She knew all the teachers' names, too.

I found this skill of hers incredible. As a teacher, I had a tough time with names. I once had fifty-three students in a beginning English class and over one third of them seemed to be named Nguyen. Trying to remember who was and wasn't a Nguyen was hellish; getting the pronunciation right was almost easier. I had to assure my students, however, that it wasn't just my lack of familiarity with Vietnamese names that made me so forgetful. If they'd all been Smith, Jones and White, I might not have struggled with the pronunciation so much, but remembering who was who would still have been a futile effort.

My child's ability to remember names, I believe, comes from my father. Although he wasn't a brilliant man, my father could give you the Latin and common name of just about any plant you could think of. He once enrolled in a plant identication class and came home after his first lesson a little shame-faced. The teacher had called him back as he was leaving the classroom. "Mr Witzl, would you like to teach this class?" he'd asked. My father knew he couldn't have taught the class, but he was ahead of the teacher in one respect: he had all the names down pat.

Just for the fun of it, I taught our eldest all the Japanese names of the plants in our garden. Hydrangea, rose, spirea, zinnia, morning glory -- she had them all, and her pronunciation was perfect. One day when she was three, I was walking her home from nursery school when we passed another woman and her daughter. The woman was carrying a potted hydrangea in a plastic bag over the handles of her bicycle, and as she passed us, she looked us up and down. Pointing a finger at us she turned to her little girl and said "Gaijin." This means "foreigner" in Japanese, and is not viewed as overly polite. Clearly, she was pointing out to her daughter what we were -- our correct label -- just as she might point out a fox, a pine tree, a tractor.

My three year old didn't miss a beat. Pointing back at the woman, she called out in a clear and confident voice "Ajisai." Hydrangea.

I will never forget the expression on the woman's face; I consider that memory one of my most precious souvenirs from Japan.


Carole said...

It seems that she not only has an amazing memory, she sounds brilliant. Handy to have though, if you are ever in a situation where you need to know a lot of names. She can be your interpreter. I loved her response to the lady who was training her daughter to notice people's differences. You must have to stay on your toes with her in the house.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Although I generally write about her good points, my eldest and I have had some incredible battles. You are right when you say that I have to stay on my toes -- she treads on them often enough! Lest I sound too boastful about her good points (which are many), I should point out that she is willful, stubborn, and a few other not-so-wonderful things. (Good thing I'm writing this blog and not her!) And yet on this one occasion, she did me proud and I cannot imagine a more effective response.

Carole said...

At the risk of getting a pot of Ajisai thrown at my head, I've heard that like minded people are those most often to duel in a family. Perhaps there is more than one willful and stubborn member of the clan.

Kanani said...

I LOVE this story.

Brian said...

Names and faces

Two interesting things in themselves, but not often coming together in my brain alas

And oddly , last night I watched a Catalyst science programme on people who have no memory of faces at all-- Faceless Vision !


Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- There is definitely more than one wilful and stubborn member of this clan: my husband! I am as gentle, malleable and biddable as can be. And fortunately, I am also the one who is writing this blog.

Kanani -- I am so glad you like it. I'm the sort of person who can never think of snappy comebacks when I need to, but on this particular occasion, my kid supplied the perfect one.

Brian -- Not being able to recognize faces must be an awful affliction. I'm great with faces; it's just the names that elude me. I've struggled with this problem since kindergarten. I still remember how long it took me to get my teacher's name right. And then she went and got married...

Paul said...

When my eldest son was little he had a fantastic photographic memory. He could remember every detail of events that happened months or even years ago - what people were wearing, what they said, everything. It was actually quite scary! But when he became a teenager he slowly lost his powers of recollection - I suspect they may have become alcohol impaired!

Mary Witzl said...

Paul -- It is a shame to see kids lose the skills and attributes they had when very young. Maybe your son's great memory has not gone for good; maybe he is one of those boys who go through a certain 'blank' period only to gain back their lost ability. I know of boys who've gone through this -- and yes, alcohol certainly plays a part!
Our eldest was a tremendous sharer. One of her favorite expressions was 'Let's share this together,' which we found beguilingly redundant. Nowadays I watch as she hogs something to herself and I could weep...

Kim Ayres said...

I'm dire with names AND faces. I've found the best way round this is to smile at everyone and be friendly as though I know them. That way I don't insult people I've met before, and those I haven't feel welcomed.

Mary Witzl said...

I wonder if you are better off not remembering names AND faces! Once, a class of mine got hold of my roll book when I was out of the classroom. When I came back in, they were tittering and giggling: I had penned in all sorts of pitiful mnemonic aids next to their names: Hashimoto -- looks like Uncle Leon; Sugiura -- thick eyebrows, heavy jowls, etc. I could have died of embarrassment.

Personally, I don't care if anyone remembers my name or not. In fact, I am generally thrilled if they forget it. That way, I don't feel guilty for forgetting theirs; I am heartened to think that there may be other name- challenged sufferers who share my affliction.