It's in the cards

When Bob Blaisdell was finally persuaded to use index cards for study, he became as obsessive about them as he was about the baseball cards of his youth

January 28, 2010

On the first day of Greek, Professor Kallas handed us each an index card: "Put your names on them. Tell me your major or which graduate department you're in. That's all I really need."

After he collected them he used them to take the register and to keep our names and the order of his questions straight. "So, let's see ... Bob? How do you translate number eight?"

I was in graduate school way back then in an English literature programme, and I was the worst, but not the least persistent, student in Kallas' class. In spite of his suggestion, and that of Judy, my next Greek teacher, that we use index cards to help us drill vocabulary and cases and conjugations, I didn't use cards; instead, I would make lists on folded-up binder paper. Next to each Greek word I would tightly write the translations. Then I would fold over the Greek and translate from the English. I used tiny writing and could get a row of six or seven across one quarter of a page. Usually by the end of that page, I had fixed in my head most of the words. The tricky words got transferred to the next quarter page with new words. Content with my method, I felt there was something ungainly about those packs of index cards, and not only Professor Kallas'; when I saw fellow students using them, I thought they were a waste of paper.

I didn't give much thought to index cards for many years, except for helping my own children to make flipbooks with them.

Then, a couple of years ago, more than 20 years after graduate school, I was sitting at a table in a study hall with Dina Kupchanka, my Russian tutor, and she suggested I use index cards. I explained, in bad Russian, that I didn't use them. Perhaps she understood my condescending tone, but I hope she didn't. She was in the role of teacher, in any case, and she waved away my dismissal. "You should!" she said. "They really would help." Knowing I was never going to use them, I watched her as she bent over the table and etched the Cyrillic pravilteltsvo with her fine black felt-tipped pen on one side of a card, and the word "government" on the other. She also wrote two forms of "to do" on another and folded the card in half: "You must learn the perfective and imperfective of the same verb." Now her cards are among mine - her Cyrillic in all capitals. My handwriting is smaller, less bold, in blue or black ballpoint, in lower case Cyrillic script.

She made up a few more that day on words I kept missing. She handed me the cards as if they were a gift: "You can study them."

I nodded. I put them in my shirt pocket and remembered them when I got home. "These are so dumb," I thought to myself. I showed my daughter, a ten-year-old, because I thought she would sympathise with me, the equivalent of a Russian four-year-old: "Look."

I flipped one. "See," I explained, "you have a card, and on one side you have the English and on the other the Russian. Government," I said, reading the English. Suddenly I couldn't remember the Russian for "government".

I flipped the card. Damn! So back and forth and back and forth I went and then I had it. And then I forgot it again. And then I flipped the card back and forth a few more times and I had it and I was hooked for good.

In my next session with Dina I asked her for a new card, as if only she had access to these magic pieces of card-stock rectangles.

"You don't have any? You should buy your own. You can make up your own, you know?"

"Yes."

But she opened up her neat book bag and sorted through her folders and took out some index cards. As she laid them out on the table, I had a lust for them that made me feel hollow and wanting. There they were. Maybe she didn't need them all. Maybe she would give me a few. That day, walking home across campus, my cards in my breast pocket, I was proud, a schoolboy with his tangible signs of learning. His souvenirs! His medals-to-be! I took them out and shuffled them and played with them. I was not quick at learning them. I kept shuffling them and playing with them.

The next day that weird lust rose in my throat as, walking away from the drugstore on Broadway, I gripped the new pack of index cards - all identical. It was the same lust I felt as a boy gripping a pack of baseball cards. The pack of index cards sits unopened on the table now, beside my cup of coffee. Unlike baseball cards, there will be no surprises and yet there will be pleasure and anticipation as I rip off the plastic. Then, instead of filling myself up on the pictures and statistics of my favourite players, I will begin, one by one, to fill up my cards with conjugations, declensions, proverbs, autobiographical monologues that Dina wrote up from my fractured Russian and stanzas by Pushkin. Unlike with my old anxieties about my baseball cards, I realised one day that if I lost my Russian cards I could write them out again.

The secret that took me a year to learn is not to have too many going at any one time. When I was a kid walking to church or to an appointment I usually went with a wad of 50 baseball cards. In or on my way to church I would steal glances at them the way my students now glance at their damned mobile phones. Of my collection of about 200 index cards, I stick with a thin travel team of six to eight instead of a fat pack, so that, for instance, on my walk from the subway to campus or from my daughter's school home, I can get through that series and repeat them until I feel I have memorised them. I carry a few index cards in my pocket notebook and in the inside pockets of my jackets. I use them as bookmarks in my grammar books.

As an 11-year-old I could memorise baseball cards with no effort. I knew how many doubles Jim Ray Hart had in 1966, I knew Willie McCovey's runs batted in totals every year from 1959 to 1970. Now I can look at my Russian cards and forget that I ever knew that verse or that word or that expression. If I'm distracted or if my card has a newly copied few lines of verse by Pushkin on it, it can take 10 to 15 minutes to get the card memorised. Then it goes back into a pile, or into my notebook, and then the next day, or a week later, or two months later, I look at the English cue, and I blank out. "Did I really ever know this one?"

So Russian is difficult, or maybe it's just difficult because I'm middle-aged. I didn't try at all to learn Spanish in my teens, yet I learnt it. I learnt French when I was 20 and I didn't even sweat. I had to work very hard to learn Greek when I was 25, but I really learnt it.

My students don't use index cards, and though I'm a neophyte I don't evangelise them. Dina, however, now tries to get me to use an electronic online index card system, but I don't like sitting with index cards. (I guess I don't understand the pleasure of playing poker on the computer either. I love the feel of cards - not the idea of them.) My dear cards are mobile. I just jotted down on them five new expressions involving infinitives. As I was putting them into a larger rubber-banded packet, I realised that there was another connection to baseball cards: the old cards' edges are less sharp, their surfaces even feel warmer. Through my fingertips, before I look down, I know the word or sentence will be a familiar one.

I love going for walks with my cards, my brain-pleasers, in my pockets. I have so many pockets, so many cards popping up, I usually don't know what I'm going to find. Right now, though, I'm in my Pushkin verse phase, so there are plenty of those around. Occasionally, when I lose a word, I can reconstruct the lines from the rhymes or I can sort out the noun and adjective case-endings because of the telltale verbs or even knock on the number of syllables until the right word pops through.

Of course, I mutter as I walk, and sometimes I lose my nerve and carry a card or cards in plain view so that passers-by might notice I'm not talking on a Bluetooth headset, or to myself. Well, of course I am talking to myself. I need so much help to keep the words in my head. I use as many portals as I can: ears, eyes, mouth, and I had a period where, on subway rides, just the way I'd seen musicians practising their finger-work on air instruments, I was composing with my forefinger in the air in front of me, writing those wonderful Cyrillic letters.

I'm happy when reciting those lovely Russian words aloud, while I'm walking in the springtime by my lonesome in Riverside Park, or in the winter on the slush-lined New York streets, or in the woods near my Canadian in-laws' place. I become proud of memorising a few verses and yet I realise I am like a teenager in Siberia memorising a few lyrics from an American rap song or a stanza by Walt Whitman, and then thumping his chest and saying: "Yes, to me certainly know Englishy tongue!"

When I notice someone using index cards I want to see what they have on them, just as I used to lean in to see what baseball cards the other kids had in their paws. In my neighbourhood, next to my wife's university, I glance up from my card and detect a young woman walking my way holding a card at her chest. Her eyes are glazed over; in memorising, one's eyes are blank and big. She is mumbling to herself. I'm fascinated - a fellow traveller. I lift my own card in acknowledgement, but she doesn't notice me, she is too occupied with her own kartochki so-slovami.

When my teenage son leaves our apartment, he pats his pockets to make sure he has his phone. I pat my pockets, too: yes, I have them. Although most Russian students would have loads of verses by heart by now, I need a starter, the way sourdough bread needs a starter. Which poem is this one? I wonder, before I glance down. Oh, yes! And so I drop my hand holding the card and lift my eyes, and recite the Russian under my breath or daringly aloud (it's hard to translate Pushkin's verse and convey the bounce and vigour and wit, but here's how I would do it):

Whether I wander the noisy streets,

Or go into a crowded church,

Or sit among the crazy young guys,

I'm occupied with my daydreams.

Ah, that Pushkin. But first I need a card to remind me of what I already know, to remind me to occupy myself with my daydreams of really and truly knowing Russian.

Index cards are my substitute memory. You buy more memory for your computer, I buy more index cards. They hold what I know better than my brain.

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