Two high schoolers hovered outside of the staff room, angling around the door. They understood the sacredness of the threshold before them, the taboo they would shatter if they breached the barrier. Sirens, alarm, the ire of several dozen teachers who would certainly unleash the tentacles and claws housed within their carapaces and shred these kids limb from limb. Entering the teachers’ lounge without prior blessing was like summoning an Elder God. Still, worry showed across their sprightly features. I asked if they needed help with something.
“We need to talk to Mrs. Santos,” they murmured. One bit at his nails. “We think she’s in there, but we don’t want to disturb her.” They clearly wanted to disturb her, but were terrified of what might befall them if they tried. They seemed to think I might be sizing them up for ritualistic blood sacrifice for even getting this close to the door. (It had crossed my mind.)
“Okay,” I muttered, scrolling through my internal rolodex. There were hundreds of teachers at the school, dozens of which I had never seen before, as they worked in the far reaches, the terrifying hellscape that formed the high school. They may as well have worked in Mongolia. I came up blank. “Do you know her first name?”
The first name didn’t ring any bells either. Still I wandered into the staffroom prepared to be helpful, but utterly unable to help in any way.
I’ve always been a face man. I can see someone once at a great distance, or under water, or from around the corner of a building, or through several dozen colourful veils being wafted by interpretive dancers, or in pitch blackness, or on the surface of the moon. I can see someone in any number of situations and quite assuredly lock their features into my brain. The shape of a nose, the cleft of a chin – crows’ feet and laugh lines, the arch of an eyebrow and the curve of an ear. All of it is scrawled on the curved inside wall of my skull like ancient cave paintings, primordial and primitive and permanent. It is a tattoo of a memory, an inky stain irremovable and unshakeable.
I’ve seen people across crowded parties that I haven’t seen since childhood, their adolescent faces ghosts swimming in the murky attics of my memory. I can read the change in their features, the sudden lack of snot bubbles or acne scars, the addition of years and poorly chosen facial hair or the scar of a gone-but-not-forgotten eyebrow ring. Time melts away, and I can recognize them for who they are, for who they were.
I’ve seen people out of Halloween scare makeup, or done up for work, or haggard and bedraggled after a rough night out. Their faces crystallize and wedge between the sinews of my brain, cling myelin-like to my neurons and become a part of my knowledge of their personhood.
And I can’t remember their names for crap.
Names, those dreary semiotic appendages to solid, real things like faces. Phonemes and letters and sounds, clunkily smooshed together in haphazard and idiosyncratic spellings and pronunciations. When the pressure is on, when I am professionally obligated to learn a name, I will employ the mental effort required to let the sounds coalesce and solidify in my brain. Scores of people will file their way in alphabetical order into my long-term memory, so long as I feel that it behoves me in some way. But without that onus, without the necessity, I am completely without the ability to record a name. What’s in a name? Not much, really.
But paired with this tingling deficit in memory is a deep, writhing sea of neurotic anxiety. My lack of ability to recall a name is matched only by my terror that I will offend someone for not knowing their name. So basic a tenant of respect that I simply gloss over it, that I discard those personal, critical letters and sounds and file them away in my mental rolodex as a rough physical description. People are stowed away in my memory not as Marks or Kellys or Jameses, but as “scawny with bowl cut” or “that weird hip thing” or “face like a concrete slab.”
I want to be better. My memory is otherwise an amazing, articulated sort of thing, an immaculate Daedalus-like labyrinthe of myelinated, crenellated brainspace for recording. I recall whole scripts of episodes of the Simpsons I saw as a child. I remember the path from King’s Cross Station to the hostel I stayed at in London when I was 21. I remember how to play the Can Can on a viola, an instrument which I have not touched since I was 15. But names still escape me, and it is regularly embarrassing.
For what will a person think of me when I come up blank? That I am a wasteful, condescending baboon of a man, too dainty and self-absorbed that he cannot wrap his mind around a few simple names. That I am scatter-brained or officious or just too stupid.
And in lieu of extending the effort, of trying to mnemonitize these various figures, I have a variety of strategies in tow. Confronted by those high schoolers standing at the front door, I grabbed the closest other teacher and asked them if Mrs. Santos was in, as the room sure was crowded! I bring friends over to those people I have forgotten and concoct a scenario where the two must introduce each other, saying their names aloud and clearly. I ask what people prefer to be called, hoping desperately that they have an easily convertible nickname or something at least stretching longer than one falsehood-exposing syllable. I play fast and loose with third person pronouns, and claim it to be a facet of my brand of Canadian English. The laborious evasions and the elaborate schemes always seem less onerous than actually embarrassing myself and admitting that I’ve forgotten the names of people I have already known for weeks or months.
I may actually be a jerk, come to think of it. But I’m not going to let anyone else know that.