Cheat sheet


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My son looked at me strangely as I held my arms outstretched with two closed fists, side-by-side, and stared at my knuckles.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Trying to remember how many days are in September,” I told him. Long before we had the internet at our fingertips, some of us employed tricks to help keep track of stuff that’s too mundane to memorize but too important to get wrong. And rather than recite the cumbersome, “Thirty days hath September” poem, just hold both fists together so your index fingers are side by side. Starting from the left, assign the month names, in order, to the knuckles at the base of your fingers and to the spaces between. No thumbs in this trick, just fingers. All the months with 31 days will land on a knuckle; all those with 30 (or February) will land on the spaces between knuckles. July and August, both with 31 days, will be represented by the index finger knuckles. Cool huh?

My eldest shared his own trick of reciting, “King Henry died, mother didn’t care much” to help him remember the metric system’s kilo, hector, deca, etc. while all the kids know PEMDAS for mathematical order of operations. And while the “Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally” may be the de facto standard mnemonic, many iterations exist, and the more crude and unusual they are, the more likely kids – and even adults – are to remember them. Please email Dad a shark.

Our immediate planetary system - Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, etc. - can be recalled with the phrase, “Mary’s ‘Virgin’ explanation made Joseph suspect upstairs neighbour.” And while it’s been years since I’ve set foot in a chemistry lab, I’ll always remember the chemical formula for sulfuric acid with the poem, “Poor little Willy, we won’t see him no more. Because what Willy thought was H2O was H2SO4.”

The school year is back in full swing meaning my youngest needs to get reacquainted with all the realities of grammar, structure, and syntax and though he's studying them in French, some basic rules apply, and I've been able to help him grasp them through music.

A large portion of my childhood was spent in front of a television and though most of it - save for Bugs Bunny, Sesame Street, and later, Monty Python's Flying Circus - was garbage, to this day, I've retained the vignettes known as Schoolhouse Rock that in 3-minute segments taught a captive audience of TV-watching kids about everything from the nervous system to the magic of the number three.

And while, unfortunately, all the political and legal lessons I've learned in this manner are American, the grammar lessons seared on my brain describing nouns, adverbs, and adjectives transcend, for the most part, linguistic barriers, and I've been singing them all to my son despite his protests. He might not like it but at least now he knows what interjections and prepositions are.

It's thanks to the brain's ability to retain aural information when it's accompanied by music that, much to my family's chagrin, I am able not only to sing jingles from commercials I saw over 30 years ago but can accurately, and regularly, recite the preamble to the American constitution.

Just to bug them.

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