The Recall of Face and Voice

My Minnie Holman (Birmingham AL) 8th Grade Class

We’re having a reunion of the survivors of my high school class this summer. Last I heard, about half of our fellow graduates had not been located. Some have gone underground, so to speak. For those of us above it yet, the June event will be an exercise of memory.

Pictures are starting to show up on the class’s Facebook page. I was shocked to learn how intact my memory was–at least in this exercise: name all the people in my eighth grade graduating class by their 1962 countenance. I only stalled on one entirely and a last name on another. Of course, if all these folks were lined up for a similar photo in their 2011 incarnation, I’d not do as well.

But then, I’d not strike out entirely, either. There is an “essence” of self that persists through time. It is in the eyes, mostly, I think. There is a timelessness in the eyes, the window of the soul. To make a person’s picture anonymous, we put a black streak across the eyes; to hide his identity, Tonto’s buddy wears a mask over the eyes. The second cue is voice; I answer the phone. It is someone I’ve not heard from in decades. There is no hesitation. It’s a buddy from my teaching years at the community college long ago. Amazing how the brain stores the pitch and resonance of a voice in your life every bit as securely as it does to the words and tune of your favorite Beatles song. There’s a primal survival value there: Listen! Is that the sound of a ice-age titmouse or a sabertooth cat? That association and response needs no time lag.

But if we can remember some things with such tenacity and facility of recall, why not other things? If I can remember…I’ll come back to this topic.

* That’s me, far right, back row. I was 5’8″ tall at the end of that school year and far from the tallest guy in my class. When classes started my freshman year at Woodlawn a few months later, I was 6 feet tall and 155, a constant weight for about 20 years, even after adding two more inches. I’ll weigh in at 185 this reunion, and betting I’ll be at the low end of the range, still.

The school behind us was demolished long ago. The rest of us are hoping to avoid the same fate for as long as possible.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Reunions are so bittersweet. We had 447 people in our graduating class, and I do well to remember 1/3 of them. I know I hurt a woman’s feelings a few years back when I couldn’t place her at all, neither name nor face. When I checked the annual later, I was surprised, since she was on the fringes of my core group of friends for 3 years. I felt badly and resolved to apologize to her at the next reunion, but she has never returned. I doubt I caused that – but one never knows.

  2. I must be psychic Fred, I picked you out, or at least as my first choice.

    I’m astonished myself how I remember names and faces from that age group. Not that it’s worth anything. Yeah, why can’t we remember everything with such clarity?

    Then I wonder why public education fills the space with mostly useless information to live in the present.