“What’s the capital of Alabama?”
By EMILY PARNELL
Special to The Star
Cooper slumped across the table, disgruntled and miserable. “Um, Montgomery?”
I looked at the sheet to verify that he was correct. It sounded right, but it’s been a long time since I was concerned about the capital of Alabama. Thinking back, I probably haven’t required that piece of information since grade school.
“That’s it. Good.”
“Oh my gosh, mom, why do I need to know these?”
I racked my brain, scanned my experiences, for why it is necessary to memorize all the state capitals. The answer I arrived upon? It’s really not. Even before I could speak into my phone “Alabama State Capital” and rely on it to spit out an accurate answer within seconds, this was hardly critical information for daily life.
“Well, let’s say you’re taking a road trip and driving across Alabama. You’re looking at a map, and you see the names of lots of towns, and you’re getting hungry, so you want to find a town that will have restaurants. You can pretty well bet that the state capital will have a McDonald’s.”
His eyes rolled. “Seriously mom?” His attitude was breaded and fried with a crispy coating of annoyance. “So I can find a McDonald’s?”
“Not just that. They’d have a Wal-mart, too. And hotels.”
He scoffed. “You can find all that on your phone.”
I didn’t want to say, “Honestly, you don’t need to know them.” That would not have helped his teacher one bit.
I’ve gone my whole life without ever needing to know any state capital other than my own. My life would probably be identical even if I’d believed the state capital of Kansas was the planet Mars. Not being one to talk in-depth about politics, there would have been no party conversation mishaps as I ranted over the cost of rocket fuel that must go into Governor Brownback’s inter-planetary commute.
Maybe my son’s needs will be different. Maybe my life has just taken a peculiar path that circumvented all instances where it’s imperative to be able to identify Concord as New Hampshire’s capital in a heartbeat, as I can do.
It turns out, I was a whiz at state capitals. I scored 100 percent on that test. The teacher was so impressed by how quickly I learned them that she asked me to share my memorization strategy. I devised it myself, and it consisted of highly contrived associations. For instance, “New Hampshire” sounds a bit like “hamster,” and “Concord” is similar to “coconut,” and hamsters are vegetarians and probably would like to eat coconuts. (Now you’ve seen a glimpse into how my third-grade brain worked, which is more or less the same way it works today.)
“You just need to learn it,” I advised my struggling son. I pointed to the value of honing our memorization skills, the cultural value of a well-rounded knowledge base, and awareness of geography and culture — even of places we’ll never go and the possibility that he’ll grow his strong opinions into political aspirations, and the benefits of being well-informed about our country.
He probably didn’t hear what I said; he was just tired and frustrated. It may be a while before that lesson sinks in.
But at the very least, he’ll know at least one city in each state in which he can find himself a Happy Meal and a room for the night.
Freelancer Emily Parnell writes for Diversions each week.