Memorizing phone numbers: An artifact of bygone days

My aunt sent a text message to the family this week informing us that her landline phone number was no more. 

It was a phone number that I have known since I was a boy (41 years according to her), and it's one of the last phone numbers that I know by heart

I know Elysha's phone number. 

I know our own landline number.

I know my father's phone number, which is also a landline (as far as I know, he has never owned a cell phone).

I don't actually know my phone number most of the time without looking at my phone. 

I know my friend Jeff's phone number, only because I use his name and number whenever I take out a golf cart. In the event that something goes wrong, they will come after Jeff instead of me.

I know my friend Bengi's landline and his parent's landline numbers, if those landlines still exist. I haven't called either one in more than a decade. 

I know the phone number of the parents of my high school girlfriend, though I'm not sure if that landline still exists, and she and her father have since passed away (and it kills me all over again just to write those words).  

I know the phone number of the school where I have worked for 20 years, and I can recall the number of two of the McDonald's restaurants where I once worked (one in Milford, MA and one in Hartford, CT), though I can't confirm that those landlines still exist.  

That's it, I think. 

Twenty years ago, I knew dozens of numbers. As a teenager and young adult, I probably knew well over 100 phone numbers by heart. Friends, family, and businesses that we called often.  

I remember loving my grandparent's phone number: 883-8642. So simple to remember. As a boy, I wondered how they tricked the phone company into giving them such a good number.  

I remember memorizing my own childhood phone number, 883-8309, at a table just outside Mrs. Dubois's kindergarten classroom with Mrs. Carroll, the woman who also taught me to tie my shoes.

Back then, area codes existed by were largely irrelevant, used only if you were calling a distant number. 

I still have old phone books filled with the phone numbers of my friends. One of these books contains close to 200 phone numbers. Friends who I called all the time, back in a day when plans were made and then executed without any adjustments because once you had left the home, communication was impossible until you were face-to-face with your friends. 

Back then, "Meet me at 7:15 in the parking lot of the Stop & Shop" meant something.  

I'm guessing that not a single one of those numbers in those books still exists today. 

It's not that I'd prefer to go back to a day when phone numbers were written in books and memorized. While that time feels nostalgic and lovely to me, there's nothing advantageous to the nostalgia. There's nothing positive about filling your mind with seven digit numbers. 

Even talking on the damn phone can be a pain in the ass. 

Conversely, I can see a multitude of benefits to a childhood spent without cellphones (a fact about my childhood for which I will be eternally grateful), but if human beings are going to have phones in our pockets, we might as well have a means of storing phone numbers by name.   

Still, I'm saddened by the news that my aunt's phone number is no more. It was a tiny piece of my childhood that still existed in today's world: a pristine artifact from a time long gone that has now succumbed to the relentless wheel of progress. 

Goodbye 883-8120. My aunt says she had that number for 41 years, and I probably knew that number for most of them. 

I suspect that it's a number I will always remember, even if dialing it will no longer cause a phone on the wall of my aunt's kitchen to ring.   

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Poetry memorization need not be boring or a waste of time. I have used it to make a woman swoon (possibly) and enact one of my greatest pranks of all time against a fellow teacher.

Mike Chasar of Poetry Magazine writes about the lost art of poetry memorization. While it’s true that the academic demand to memorize poetry has all but disappeared from the American school system, I’m happy to report that this dying art remains alive and well in tiny corners of the world, including several of my own.

I took a poetry class in college with the late, great poet and professor Hugh Ogden, and he required us to have a newly memorized poem “of substance” ready for each class. 


“Of substance” meant that it had better not be four lines long.

We sat around a large, wooden table and recited our poems as our classmates listened on. Remarkably, Hugh had many of the poems that we recited committed to memory as well. He would close his eyes as we recited, almost as if he were listening to music and not the fumbling, occasionally inarticulate words of an nervous, undergraduate English major.

It was an incredibly difficult but incredibly rewarding expectation. I still have about half a dozen of those poems committed to memory, including Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” which I fell in love with through the process of memorization and still love today.

Later, when I had students of my own –third graders and then fifth graders – I would require them to memorize at least one poem “of substance” each year. My students would grumble and complain about the requirement, but once they had the poem memorized and performed it on stage, they were happy to have done so.

Today, my students perform Shakespeare, and they memorize dozens and sometimes hundreds of lines with nary a complaint. And we still memorize our one poem of the year, myself included, in honor of Hugh.

Years ago, in a time when Elysha and I still exchanged a present for every night of Hanukkah, I memorized Elysha’s favorite poem, William Blake’s  “The Tyger” and presented it as one of my gifts to her. With the poem committed to memory, I told Elysha that she had access to it at any time as long as we were together, and I would always recite to her on demand.

She loved the gift, or at least pretended to love it. And I can still recite the poem today, as can she.


But my favorite moment of poetry memorization occurred about ten years ago when the teacher in the adjoining classroom began using the following call and response with his students:

Teacher: Oh Captain!
Students: My Captain!

I asked the teacher if he knew the Whitman poem that he was using – which I had memorize in college for Hugh and still have committed to memory to this day – and he did not. He had taken the idea from Dead Poet’s Society, the Robin William’s film about an English teacher at a boy’s boarding school in the 1960’s. 

I thought this rather unfortunate, so the next time he was absent from his classroom, I handed a copy of the poem to each of his students and asked them to begin memorizing it in secret. I explained that I would pop into their classroom whenever he was out to help them memorize the poem and rehearse, and one day, when they all knew the poem by heart, they would leap to their feet in the midst of the call and response, and instead of simply saying, “My Captain!” they would proceed to recite the entire poem to him.  

It finally happened on a morning in April. Since our classroom had an adjoining door and window, I was able to wait and listen for him to shout his first, “Oh Captain!” of the day. Then I watched as they all stood and recited the poem back to him. Shouted it back to him. 

In my memory, their recitation was universal and flawless. I suspect the truth was something not quite so cinematic. Still, it was amazing.

Had I been more familiar with the film at the time, I would’ve had them all stand on their desks. That would’ve been cinematic.