Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Surjective Memories


A visit by former students affirms my love of and respect for teaching. You teach them hoping you are giving them tools to realize their full potential, and make you obsolete because they’ve learned to teach themselves. So when you get to meet the person they have become, after leaving your nest, it’s a treat.

Sometimes they take the time to reflect on their experiences in your class, and when they do, I am often astounded by how differently something I said or did impacted them than I thought or intended. A student who showed little interest  in science, later told me how strongly he felt about Newton’s initial experimental results being rejected by his colleagues when history proved the results were correct. It was a side note to a chapter on speed of sound or light, and I don’t even recall what specific tale I told, but I’m glad I did, because there he was, articulating the problems with social pressure in science.

I call these memories surjective, borrowing the mathematical term that describes that A maps to B but B does not map to A (ok, my math-head friends will gag at this definition, but I doubt the Wikipedia entry will help: I seem to get more confused after reading definitions of mathematical terms in Wikipedia). I mean that how I remember the incident, or its impact, is not at all how the other person who experienced the same incident remembers it. I don’t even know if the student understood the lesson I taught at the time (I’m certain he would not have remembered it, even if he did understand it then), and I was unaware that there was a whole different lesson he was learning from me during the same class.

When visiting my family, stories of major life events in the past seem to pop up more frequently as they (and I) get older. One day, my mother was telling someone about when I left Japan to attend a boarding school in Canada. I was almost 12 years old. I remember the day vividly. Many relatives came to the airport to see me off. I remember the olive canvas bag I carried over my shoulder, but clutched it tightly knowing how important it was to not lose the passport inside it. I remember the shiny white floor before the security gate where a clear divider indicated that only passengers can enter beyond that point. I remember the ceiling being high, as they are in airports. I remember my mother comically throwing me kisses like a ninja dispatching some shuriken in rapid succession (because, we are Japanese, and we don’t say “I love you” to each other). I remember seeing them one last time to wave, and then turning around to enter the gate. It was all business from there. I remember reciting the order of events to come: first the security where I should make sure I picked up all my belongings, then the passport control/immigration where I need to fill out my embarkation card, where I should note the area where I must leave blank for reentering Japan. I should keep my boarding pass and my passport together with the card until the card is stapled onto my passport. Then I should proceed to the gate, which my parents verified for me before we said goodbye. Over half a day later, I arrived at my destination, and was meeting people who will be my dorm mates in a different country. I had so many questions for those who have been there previously: how does the laundry baskets work, when do we take a bath, what time do we wake up, where can we put away things that don’t fit in the drawers, what type of socks are considered regulation, etc. etc. Then classes began and I had more questions.

It was a completely different experience for my mother, who apparently waited a long time after I went into the gate for me to turn around and wave goodbye once again. All these years, I didn’t know of her disappointment to miss the opportunity to wish me well one last time. She remembers not getting a phone call from me when I got to the boarding house confirming my safe arrival. She remembers a very long week after my departure where she did not hear from me until the following weekend (when presumably, I learned how to fill out the right form to request making an international call, since there was no Skype nor international calling cards at the time).

At first I was troubled by how different the experiences were for the same event, because there is comfort in knowing some things can be completely objective or that there is an absolute truth that lies independent of all of us. It turns out most memories, when compared are not bijective experiences (a short hand for me to refer to experiences that have similar impact for both parties). But as I hear my relatives bring up more of those stories, I have grown to appreciate the opportunity I have to know their experiences, which in turn, enriches my own memories.

Photo: Portland, Maine, one of bijective memories I share with my husband during our road trip visiting friends around the US


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This entry was posted on May 7, 2015 by in Family and tagged , .
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