memory, not fidelity

“I’m just going to watch you,” he said. He was smiling, sunburnt, a lanyard around his neck. Realizing the strangeness of what he’d said, he added: “I’ve always wanted to draw,” pointing to my sketchpad, the pen in my hand.

We were in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Above us, Rubenesque women and attendant cupids, the embossed wisdom—”words are also actions and actions are a kind of words”—of Emerson, Bacon, Milton, Carlyle.

The man beside me was a middle school teacher, he said, from New Mexico. Around us, a hundred almost-teens, some with phones held aloft. They joshed, laughed, looked at each other as much as anything.

I couldn’t blame them.

I remember that age with a kind of cataracted eye, a haziness. “Take pictures,” my parents had instructed on field trips, pressing a disposable camera into my hands. I did, but none of them lasted—not the ones of walls, or ceilings, or women and their cupids, at least.

And why should they? We’re not photographers, most of us. But we do our crude best to capture people, and those are the images we most often keep. The rest are poor stand-ins for the memories we’d like to commemorate.

But the camera isn’t enough.

My instructions were to spend an hour drawing an archway, the curve and flat of the pillars, the stairwell and cupola above. After a time, one of the women in my drawing class deposited her book and pencils on the ledge next to me. “Watch my stuff?” she asked, and then went in search of a bathroom.

I took a break from my drawing, leaning back on the ledge. I watched. This was a place I’d normally bring my camera to bear on, as though the act of taking a picture exempted me from having to look closely.

And that’s the problem: at some point, the camera began to function as my third eye, and I’d come away with a half-cocked impressions of places, the ghosts of buildings, monuments.

These places deserve an exactitude in our memories from which we have grown slowly apart. We glance, we say, “how pretty,” and then our phones flash white.

In a picture is worth…: the voice of today’s high school students, David Castro and Alisa del Tufo observe that, “when the youth of a community become educated, committed and effective, they can become productive and politically engaged changemakers.”

What does it mean for a young person to be committed, to be effective? How can a field trip—a temporary displacement from New Mexico to Washington, D.C.—properly educate?

To start, it is not enough to bring teenagers to the Library of Congress. It is not nearly enough to give them smartphones to document it. There are 350 billion unique images on the Internet, and several thousand of the same ceiling and windows and archways. And how very impressionable we are when so young. What a shame to place cameras between us and these things.

At the very least, we ought to sit, to consider.

Briefly, I imagined what might happen if the teacher from New Mexico put pens in his students’ hands and said: write this place, draw it. Tell me what you see. Tell me what you understand.

photo credit: Library of Congress – 3 ex. HDR (handheld) by m01229 (license)

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