Every February 9th, I make a point to celebrate National Pizza Day. It’s an act of remembrance — of a feeling, of a community. A way of dealing with pain, and infusing it with joy. Also, it’s just pizza.
At the conclusion of every school year, I ask my students to promise me that they’ll acknowledge me for the rest of their time at the school. Just a quick “hello” is enough, I tell them; it is boarding school, after all, and the chances of seeing me again are high, even if it is in sweatpants at the gym. I want them to remember the feeling we had when we laughed making Punnett Square and the frustration we felt when muddling through a complicated problem set. They promise they will never forget me, forget our class. I want to believe them. I let a “hello” stand in for that.
Remembering and Forgetting
I am not sure why I am so scared of forgetting, but I am. My whole adult life, I have been consumed by remembering as much as I can. I had Lyme disease when I was a teenager and it affected my memory. I can’t remember much about the details of high school, or my early college years. As a science teacher, I have learned more about the neuroscience of memory formation. I think often of Clive Wearing, the man with no short-term memory. He is joyful, yet also profoundly depressed. “It’s been like death, I’ve never seen a human being before. Never had a dream or thought,” he muses in a documentary about his life.
To remember, I think, is to be human.
Maybe that’s why I am so obsessed with remembering everything: I want to be human. Since 2015, I have kept a journal next to my bedside table. I call it my “remember-lutions” journal after I made a resolution to remember. Every few days, I write down what has been going on in my life. I write about what I taught, who I saw, how I felt. I sometimes fantasize about being called as a witness for a trial and someone asking — “Ned, what did you do March 31st, 2018?” and being able to say in detail what I did that day, much to the awe of the jury.
Nuanced People, Little Boxes
I thought about National Pizza Day when Henry died. It was January, 2019, a devastating car accident. It was icy, as it is wont to be in Minnesota at that time of year. He had just graduated the previous June. I had been his advisor for three years. He was smart and fun and mischievous. Every morning, I’d read the Blue Sheet — our school’s daily bulletin — which included what was on the day’s lunch menu. I am not sure how it became a joke, but sometime in my second year of working with Henry, when I was getting ready to say what was for lunch, he would say — every day — “Today is National Pizza Day.” We would all laugh.
I have so many specific memories of Henry — of him releasing ladybugs all over school or writing ‘NERD’ in giant lab-tape letters on my window — but the way I remember him every year is by celebrating National Pizza Day. I order a large pepperoni and think back about what feels like “the good old days.” I eat pizza, and mourn — his death and the impact it had on me, how it made me feel like I needed to leave my job, the students I loved, the city I lived in, and how I did.
Sometimes I wonder about the symbolic value of remembering by eating a pizza. What does it mean to collapse a fully formed, messy, wonderful person into a slice of Pepperoni? Yet, it is how I grieve, how I process loss, and celebrate the connection I feel not only to him, but all of my advisees who experienced that loss with me.
When describing this feeling to a friend, he told me that it reminded him of keeping Kosher. “I keep Kosher to remember — my ancestry, my community, my past,” he told me. “It is a way of taking a big thing, and collapsing it into a box I can carry with me.”
My little “Hellos,” like my slices of pizza on National Pizza Day, are akin to these boxes. I collapse big, beautiful, complicated people and relationships into them so I can carry them around with me in a way that is manageable. As independent school educators, we are constantly “wearing many hats,” running from one obligation to the next. It can be hard to carry the weight of our relational histories in school around with us as we do that. But, if we can make it symbolic, it becomes manageable to hold onto the wonderful, messy young people who come into our lives each academic year.