Muscle Memory

I had every intention of running during my five weeks in Italy this summer.  I took my running clothes, shoes, and clif shots.  I took all my gear.  I knew I had a half marathon five weeks after my return, so if I could just keep up a bit of a base (6 or so), I’d be fine.

Wishful thinking.  I ran exactly once while in Italy.  And it was barely a run.  I’m not sure how it came up, but two of the students ended up in an epic running duel across the piazza.  The victor, basking in her triumph, was quick to accept my playful challenge for a second race.

“On your mark, get set, go!”

Off we went, from one end of the piazza to the other, I’m sure causing much confusion among the locals sitting in the café. I could hear all the students cheering and there was a faint rendition of “chariots of fire” somewhere in the background. I’m not sure if someone was humming it or if it was in my brain but it was enough to make me laugh… really hard.  I lost the race.  And that was the only running that happened in Cagli, Italy.  My running gear got a nice, relaxing trip to Italy and back.

When I got back to the states, I was a bit worried about going from piazza to half marathon in five weeks.  When I sat down to plan out my long runs, I figured I would have to leap to 6 the first week (yes a true leap–from zero to 6 is no easy task), increasing by a mile every week thereafter, peaking at 10 the week before the half marathon.   I could do it, right?

Here’s what actually happened:

Week one:  6.  Week two: 8.  Week three:  10.  Week four:  12

I’m still in a bit of shock about how quickly I was able to rebuild.  My body remembered. Muscle memory.

I knew about muscle memory in theory, but had never really fully experienced it.  The theory is that when you teach your body how to do something (with repetitive training), you create a sort of blueprint that stays with your body.  Then, if you take time off, once you restart your body remembers the blueprint and you are able to move back to where you before you stopped faster.  Your muscles have learned.  And they remember.  Muscle memory.

In Spring 2012 I spent every day for six months in a 3 x 5 foot room.  I was on sabbatical.  I was able to secure a faculty research room in our library.

“This is my writing space?” I thought, when I first walked in the room.  It was sterile, bare, and furnished with a metal, 1970s desk and bookshelf. I laughed to myself:  this was where I was going to find my muse and create a work that would make a difference?   I sat there, the first day, feeling a bit deflated.  It wasn’t the picture I imagined.  What would I be able to create in this 3 x 5 metal box?

The next day I came to the room—which I began affectionately calling my “cubbie”—with gear.  On the largest wall in front of the desk, I put up notes given to me by students during an exercise I do with them in preparation for teaching.  That way I could see their voices and words every day.  I set up many other tokens that had heart and meaning to me.  I made the space my own.  Yet the question still remained in my mind:  What would I be able to create in this 3 x 5 metal box?

I created a book.

I started with a blank page on day one.  Six months later, I had 333 pages.  Hour after hour, day after day, month after month–I sat in my cubbie and wrote.  In that 3 x 5 box, the world opened up to me.  I was free to try out ideas I had never tried before, to play with words and language and meaning in unconstrained ways, and to listen to and to find my voice without the echoes of other voices trying to make mine conform.  I created a book, yes.  But what happened was bigger than the book.

In that 3 x 5 metal box, I created muscle memory.

First day of school, Fall 2012:  Many of the students who inhabit your classrooms are just beginning their training.  Some are in the college classroom for the first time, not knowing what to expect.  Others are returning from summer adventures near and far.  Others are returning after a brief break from summer school.  Regardless of what they have left to come to you, they all come to your classrooms for the first time this week.  And they arrive with a wide range of anxiety and excitement levels.  Some have that deer in the headlights “why did I ever leave home?” look.  Some have faraway eyes that long for relaxing, summer days at the beach. Some are full of anticipation.  Some are excited new learners.  Some are anxious to graduate and move on with their lives. And some are tired, starting yet one more class and one more academic year.

Regardless, they are probably all a bit out of shape—intellectually.  So what is your job?

Your job is to create a space.  Turn the box that is your classroom into a space for learning.  You don’t need PowerPoint or high tech sound systems or smart boards or plush chairs that roll or tables that double as white boards.  You could be stuck in a 3 x 5 box with 1970s metal furniture and it would not matter (other than it being a bit crowded!) — you get to create the communicative space.   And in creating that space, you help your students build muscle memory.

Train them:

Stretch their imagination. Exercise their curiosity. Push their sense of intrigue. Engage their desire to question. Strengthen their ability to find a voice.


Practice empathy. Model kindness. Listen.

In doing this, you will help your students do the work necessary to create muscle memory.

I applied to keep my “cubbie” this academic year, thinking I could get over there one day a week to inhabit my writing space.  But I decided just last week that I would turn it back over to the library.  What hit me was that the reason I wanted to keep it was because I thought that I needed that space to continue my passion for writing.  I thought I needed that space to in order to listen to my voice in future writing projects.  I thought it was the space that brought the intellectual and emotional freedom I cherished as I wrote.  I was mistaken.  Indeed, the space was important.  But what was more important than the space itself was what I created in that space.  And I am not referring to the book.

Muscle memory. My heart will remember.

I walked out of that space two days ago, having returned it to its empty, bare, 3 x 5 metal box.  I had what was important with me.

This week, you begin the 2012-2013 academic year with an opportunity to teach.  You have an opportunity to create a space.  What an honor.  Think about it. What an honor.  And when your students leave that space in 15 weeks, it will return to an empty classroom.  But hopefully your students will have what is important with them.  I am not talking about grades or projects or digital copies of speeches or test scores. I know, these are important—we hope in academia that students remember what we teach.  And we hope that they carry what they know into other classes.  But more than helping students remember what is helping them remember how.

Listen to them.  Help them find a voice.  Train them. Curiosity. Intrigue. Empathy. Kindness. Imagination.

Muscle memory.  Over time, their hearts will remember.  But for now… you begin this first week of classes with a blank page. Write on it.

On your mark.  Get set.  Go.

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