Reliance on Memory and Why Three May Equal Five

Mom and Mary Agnes Habben. Probably taken at Mom’s bridal shower in 1967. Mary Agnes and Mom took summer classes together at Western.

Mom graduated from college in 1963. I was sure of it. I was positive. I would have bet money on it. Well not a lot of money and certainly not an entire paycheck, but perhaps the change floating around in my pocket. After all I wasn’t alive in 1963 and wagering on events one did not witness is risky business even when one is certain they took place.

Turns out it was a good thing I never made that wager.

Mom told me she had finished college in three years (“was done” is most likely the phrase she used). I had heard her tell me more than once and I knew I had heard it. The number stuck in my head like a song that just will not leave.  Three years. The memory was combined with the caveat that Mom didn’t want me to try and finish college in three years because some times she wished she had not done it that way herself.

She never told me why she was done in three years and I never thought to ask. She had worked at the college bookstore to support herself and apparently had some student loans. Finishing in three years was a way to cut the total cost down. The reason was practical and quintessential Mom.

And so when it came time to write her obituary, I indicated she had graduated in 1963. She had graduated high school in 1960 and little math was required to determine that three years later would be 1963. Math does not get much simpler than that.

The only problem was her diploma dated 1965. The diploma was discovered before the obituary was published. My error was corrected. But I was confused.

And then I remembered.

Mom had started teaching elementary school back in the day when a completed bachelor’s degree was not required. She had enough credits and was allowed to teach even though she had not finished her degree. Those stories of her driving to Macomb (home of Western Illinois University, Mom’s alma mater) with some of her fellow teachers to take summer classes came flooding back to me. It made perfect sense and explained the 1965 graduation date.

It also made sense why Mom said she “was done” in three years. She was done enough to start teaching but technically had not graduated.

But it got me to thinking.

How many pieces of information are in records because someone remembers part of a story or remembers a story incorrectly? How often do we use information provided in a record without giving too much thought as to how the informant came to know that information? Was the informant providing information based on only part of the story?Was the informant providing information at time when they were under stress or were distracted?

And how many times do we hear a phrase and conclude that it means a little more than it does? “Getting done” could be slightly different than graduating–at least in Mom’s situation.

I cannot provide primary information as to when my mother graduated college because I was not alive when it happened. That’s a simply fact of chronology. I could scream it as loud as I wanted. I could type it in bold face using the largest font. Communicating the information loudly and proudly does not change the fact that my knowledge is not primary.

That diploma? It does provide primary information and the type size is not unusually large.

And me? Against Mom’s advice I graduated from college in three years. That’s something I have primary knowledge of because I personally witnessed it.

And somewhere is the diploma to prove it.




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