Who are we but our memories? We are attached to them, even possessive. We pride ourselves on our stash of personal memories, and trot out the stories—our first kiss, the smell of our grandparents’ attic, that time we got lost in a foreign city—with confidence.
But our confidence is undeserved. With each telling of the story, details change. A memory is but one neural trace in a brain making new neural connections all the time: Our brains are works-in-progress, liquid cognition, never still. And every psychological study on the veracity of memories shows that as we grow, as our opinions gel and loosen and petrify and dissolve, as we hear others’ stories of their memories, as we learn about love, family, and find our way in the world, our memories shift.
I know all that. I earned a doctorate in cognitive science and have taught a generation of students about the fallibility of human memory. And yet, thinking back on Sean Smith, the handsome, bright-eyed English teacher I revered in high school, I confronted this traitor, memory, in person. I thought I knew who Mr. Smith was. I thought I knew who I was. I may have been wrong.
Here’s the story I tell of Mr. Smith:
Smitty, as we called him (as he let us call him), taught junior English: American Literature. He was middle-aged, tall, blond. He wore Oxford shirts, khakis, and comfortable shoes. His stride was long.
I was not sure that I “liked” English class, in the way that, as a teenager, I had devout, spontaneously formed opinions about who I was and what my alliances should be. Emboldened by learning the meaning of the word “bunk,” I pronounced to my teacher that “history is bunk.” Having read Sartre’s No Exit (Huis Clos) in French, I refused to read it in the English translation. I spent hours in the photography darkroom, sure that my solarized prints of solemn faces and shadows on stairs were deeply meaningful.
To my teenaged self, Alix, English was an exercise in ruining a good book by talking about it. But I loved Mr. Smith. He coaxed our sophomoric opinions about Frost and Thoreau out of our mouths and took them seriously. We were scholars. He countenanced my complaints about less-than-perfect scores in vocabulary quizzes that seemed designed to trick more than teach. We were masters.
Mr. Smith was in the middle of a graduate program in philosophy at St Andrews, and he introduced a philosophy class to our high-school curriculum. We read the Greeks; we read Hume and Descartes and Kant. We all rambled “philosophically.” Which is to say: I got to utter half-baked ideas, and have those utterances ring around the room without being swatted down (so that I could come to realize how undercooked they were on my own). Mr. Smith let us think for ourselves—he gave us room to think for ourselves.
At the trimester’s end, we were invited to write a final paper on “any topic” in philosophy. I spent hours frowning intellectually at my mother’s Smith Corona, inhaling the odors of typewriter ribbon and white-out, humming along with the typewriter’s buzz, typing my magnum opus: “Philosophical Investigations: Or, The World According to Alix.”
Sean Smith made not a single snide comment of the type that pops instantly to my mind on recalling this title. He accepted this paper with the gravity that Wittgenstein’s tutor must have. I remember feeling special. Good at this.
I received honors in English. And so it was that I went to college and majored, after Smith, in philosophy. So it was that I valued and pursued making logical arguments, identified as an analytic thinker, and eventually played it out to its natural extreme, becoming a scientist. But before that, my confidence buoyed by Smitty, I spent two years defining words for Merriam-Webster, the dictionary company. When my name appeared in the front of the Collegiate Dictionary’s Tenth Edition, I proudly tucked a list of the new words I had defined in the front, and sent a copy to my mentor. (I kept his pleased, polite response tucked in my dictionary.)
So the story could end. It’s been thirty-three years. Mr. Smith, sadly, died too young, from a brain tumor. My story of Mr. Smith has resonated in my brain—that fluid, protean brain—since. I’ve told it many times. I’ve grown. I’ve heard others tell their stories. I’ve formed opinions, changed my mind; learned about love, family, and found my way.
I recently thought to see if my story was true—if my memories of Smitty, and my time in his classes, tracked not only in my brain but also with reality. The yearbook confirmed the Oxford-and-khaki, the blond. But, oh, he was young. In a photo, surrounded by smiling students, with a cup of frozen yogurt, he is just a smidge older than we are.
My mother is a keeper of memory traces in the form of papers and art projects; as a result, I still have my childhood report cards, stored in an accordion file in a deep drawer. I open the drawer. I play the accordion. My childhood evaluations slide out and the smell of carbon copies hits me. ALGEBRA, FRENCH IV, ECONOMICS, CHOIR. I skim each onionskin page, scanning teachers’ comments. My physics teacher, Doc Hogan, a sage and gentle man, says of my final exam: “a model of clarity and brilliance.” I have “exceptional talent” for French, Mme Wesche writes. Paul Krajovic, my sophomore English teacher, writes, “I have the greatest respect for her, as a student and as a person.”
At last, a sheet with Sean Smith’s signature on the bottom. I am all anticipation. But the top of the page says BRITISH LITERATURE. The grade, a B. At the bottom of the page, the space for comments extolling my analytic sense, he has written, “Your writing is clear.” Period. I was an okay student in a class I misremembered as Frost and Thoreau and cannot recall a single other thing about. Mr. Smith adds one more sentence: “The last vocabulary quiz”—uh-oh —“was disappointing.” Vocab grade: C.
Who is this shifty narrator, our memory? I based my future on a constructed idea of who I was—of who my mentor was. While I was not entirely wrong, to have even the edges of a memory bluntly disproven is to bring suspicion to all memories: Was I really so sophomoric about history and philosophy? The story I tell of myself: Is that me?
The final report I find is PHILOSOPHY, my last year of school. “Alex,” Mr. Smith pens, misspelling my name just enough, “this could be your calling in life.”
Whatever the world was like to the person I was in high school, my memory is inevitably part reality, part fiction. The teacher Mr. Smith actually was is blurred completely with the teacher Mr. Smith was to me.
If our memories are who we are, we are mercurial creatures indeed. At times, they tell us the truth; at times, they are stories woven from who we have become. Maybe they are less who we are than who we decide to be.
For a moment, I release my concern about whether the memory that lives on in my head is real. And I simply thank you, Smitty. Whoever you are. And whoever I am.
ALEXANDRA HOROWITZ teaches canine cognition and audio storytelling at Barnard College, where she also runs the Dog Cognition Lab. Her book Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know was a best-seller, and her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and elsewhere. Most recently, she published her fourth book, Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond.