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  • Sarah Nannery

Memory Lane: Epiphanies

One of my most frequent memories of childhood and adolescence - and even into young adulthood and still sometimes to this day - are the seemingly random, sudden, and all-encompassing epiphanies I experience (rarely now, but still) when it comes to words and concepts we use in every day life.

A "crosswalk" is called a "crosswalk" because people use it to "walk" a"cross" the street. *mic drop* 0_O

Mind blowing, right?

Or get this one: We refer to car engines having a certain amount of "horsepower" because before we had cars, we had buggies on wheels powered by real live actual horses - using "horsepower." o_O

I kid you not, these are the types of lightning bolts that would hit me on a regular basis growing up.

A lot of this, I think, has to do with the fact that my brain memorizes facts. By rote. I intake data like a sponge. Give me all the details and I will write them into my memory banks and access them whenever I need the information, like a computer. Data, data, data - facts, facts, facts - and only if I make a conscious effort am I able to stop my brain for a minute and think, Wait. But why, though?

I take the fact in: The word I use to describe this thing is "crosswalk." I memorize it, I know it, I use it whenever I need it - but until I manually take a moment to step back and examine WHY, I don't fully grasp the entire concept and context of the word that I am using.

My autistic brain learns things by rote, rather than by meaning.

Recently, I had another slightly more complex version of these epiphanies when I took a closer look at the branding scheme I had laid out for this blog. Most of the images associated with my blog posts are the title of the post set against a wooden background, with some flowers laying against the wood.

When I first decided on this overall theme, I thought it was pretty, calming, natural, quiet, and overall a nice expression of my personality. But taking that step back recently and looking again, I realized: Are these not, in fact, wallflowers? Am I not, since I was literally a young girl standing against the wall of a large room watching the crowd have fun around me - a “wallflower?” I expressed this revelation to some friends of mine recently and they looked at me like I had six heads (as most people do when I have one of these silly lightbulb moments). “Yeah!” They said. “We thought you did that on purpose!”

This learning style affected many other aspects of my life growing up. One example I remember very vividly was how I learned to read and play music.

I play the flute, and have since I was 8 years old.

In 7th Grade, when I was 12, I had moved to a new state and was getting settled into a new school. This included the school band. On the first day of band practice, the Band Director asked all the flutes to play a D. (In music, there are 7 different basic “notes” you can play - A, B, C, D, E, F, and G - with variations from there.)

I was the only flute player left dumbfounded, unsure of what to do. The band director stopped the flutes playing and looked at me quizzically. “Do you not know how to play a D, dear?” she asked.

I shook my head. I was a little baffled, because I had considered myself a fairly good flute player, and had gone to summer camp for music and everything. Why was I suddenly so confused by what the band director was asking us to do?

“Alright dear, don’t worry about it." The band director said. "Just play what you can for now and we’ll take care of it when we break into sectionals.”

Later, in our flutes sectional, the band director (who happened to be a flute player herself), began what she thought was going to be a long process of teaching me how to play music from the very beginning. “When did you start playing the flute, dear?" She asked. "Most of our players started last year in 6th Grade. Did you start just this year?

“No,” I said. “I started four years ago.”

“Four!?” she looked surprised. I could tell she was making an effort to keep her tone of voice gentle and neutral, rather than appalled. “And you don’t know how to play a D?”

I shook my head again, feeling even more confused and embarrassed.

“Alright, no problem. Tina, can you show Sarah how to play a D, please?”

Tina promptly showed me how she placed her fingers on her flute keys and blew a D.

“Oh,” I said. “Yes, I know how to do that.” And I copied her perfectly.

The band director was satisfied, and asked Tina to show me how to play a few other notes, all of which I also knew already, though for some reason couldn’t play them when the band director asked. We then went on to playing a piece of music together as a section.

After playing it through a few times together, the band director isolated a particularly tricky part and asked each of us to play it for the group individually. This is a way of pinpointing where individual players might be having issues with more difficult sections of the music. She went down the line, listening to each player in turn, and not one person got it completely right. She got to me, and gave me (as the new kid on the block) the option of trying to play it then or not -- presumably to save me the embarrassment of being so far behind everyone else. I had no problem playing it then, and said so.

”Alright dear, go ahead then.” She said, turning away to head back to her copy of the sheet music, clearly not intending to listen much to my attempt.

I played the passage perfectly.

Utter silence boomed through the room as I finished. I could tell everyone was shocked, but I didn’t understand why.

The band director recovered first, coming back over to me. "Sarah," she said, "You - you couldn't play a D when I asked you to, but you could play that passage perfectly just now?"

I shrugged my shoulders, genuinely confused. "I guess," I said.

Comprehension was beginning to dawn on the band director's face. She came right up to my music stand, looked over the top of it at the sheet of music, and put her finger on one of the notes. "Play this note." She said

I played it.

"What note is this?" She asked, still pointing.

I looked at it, and used one of the mnemonics I had learned in order to remember the order of the notes on the page: "Elves Get Better Dancing Feet." (E, G, B, D, F, which are the notes corresponding to the five lines in music, from bottom to top.) "That's a D," I said.

The band director had heard me using the mnemonic to figure out what note it was. "So, you can read music fine, but you don't really know what notes you're playing unless you're reading them off of the page. So when I asked you to play a D, you didn't know what note that was, but when you read it off the page, you play it fine." She said this as a statement rather than a question, so I didn't feel any need to respond. I supposed she must have been right.

That was the moment I realized that I had learned how to play music, in some ways, by rote. I knew how to tell which note was called what on the page. I knew how to play each note based on where it appeared on the page. But never on my own had I linked all of that together into one full picture.

Needless to say, I was not very popular in that particular band after that day. All of the pre-teen flute players were convinced that I had tried to trick them all into thinking I was a true beginning player when in fact I ended up being better than all of them. It didn't help that I -- in my infinite autistic wisdom of facts and logic -- wasn't surprised in the least that I was better than all of them. Hadn't the band director just told me that they'd all started playing only a year ago? Logically, I'd already been playing for 4 years, so it made perfect sense that I was better. In my mind, it wasn't something worth getting hard feelings over, so I couldn't understand the subsequent ostracizing that I experienced from the rest of the flutes throughout the remainder of that year. Eventually this led to me faking several mistakes in a later chair placement test, so that I wouldn't be first chair anymore. (By the way, this also failed to improve my popularity, but that's the brain of a 12-year-old...)

On the whole, I love the momentary light bulbs that my brain gives me sometimes, when I suddenly put two-and-two together and have a revelation about the larger contextual meaning of a word or phrase that I've used by rote all my life.

Anyone else up at midnight - the "middle" of the "night," by the way - realizing with childlike astonishment that a backpack is a "pack" that you wear on your "back"? 🤩 🤩

No? Just me? Okay then. 😂

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