It was my freshman year of high school, and I was at my first Model UN conference, walking out of the dining room of the Hilton hotel where the conference was being held. I had just finished lunch with my friends and was heading back to my committee room, when I saw a face I hadn’t seen in several years. My best friend from grade school was getting onto the escalator in front of me. I started slapping my high school friend, Margaret, in excitement. I pointed to my old friend and whispered loudly, “I went to elementary school with that guy!”
In the beginning years of elementary school, I predominantly associated with boys, and Eric was one of my close friends. We had play-dates and hung out on the playground during recess together, where I used to tell him and a few other boys funny stories that were somewhat inappropriate for second-graders. I was invited to his birthday parties, and was nervous about being the only girl in attendance, but ultimately sucked it up because he was my friend, dammit, and I couldn’t just miss his birthday. In fourth grade, he went to another school, after which I didn’t see him. And now I was finally going to catch up with him and reminisce about our second grade class hedgehog and playing cops and robbers. Needless to say, I was pretty enthusiastic about our imminent reunion.
I got onto the escalator after him, smiling giddily, and called to him. “Hey, Eric! I haven’t seen you in years!” He looked at me blankly. I’d grown up a bit since elementary school, but I still basically looked the same. “It’s Rachel,” I added. Eric looked like he was half-heartedly trying to remember me. “From Littlebrook…” This finally triggered his memory a bit.
I don’t really remember what he finally said in response. He offered some sort of recognition of me and maybe said something along the lines of “it’s good to see you,” and walked away once we got to the end of the escalator. We’d been best friends as kids and he barely remembered me. There was no reminiscing, no reunion.
But that wasn’t the last time we saw each other in high school. Apparently, he went to a private school not far from mine, and we ended up both joining the same student group, which held a retreat for members from all represented schools at the beginning of each year. Two years in a row we went on the same retreat together, and two years in a row he forgot my name. Again. If someone mentioned my name to Eric now, I’m sure he’d struggle to recall these interactions, and yet I’ve brought this story up a number of times with friends over the years. How could my former best friend possibly forget my name and face altogether?
I consider myself pretty good with faces and names, but even if I give Eric the benefit of the doubt, I cannot fathom how he could actually forget me over and over again. Still, I’ve always expected people in general to reciprocate and remember me as well, which in the past didn’t seem completely unreasonable. If I’ve held a substantive conversation with someone and have spent more than an hour with him or her, I think the person can bother to commit my face to memory. A few weeks ago, I attended the party of a friend from home, and her friends from school, with whom I spent time last year, re-introduced themselves to me. They offered me some recognition by saying, “I think we’ve met before.” These are not people I’d just met in passing; I talked to them for multiple hours, played games with them, watched Disney movies with them. Although I have high standards for people and think they should have been able to recall my name. Maybe it escaped them in the moment, or perhaps they truly don’t have great memories. Even so, they definitely should have been able to confidently remember my face and recall that we’d met before, without needing to preface their introduction with doubt, telling me they “think” they’ve seen me. If I’ve slept in the same room as you and you ask me, “It’s Rachel, right?” the next time you see me, something is wrong. You shouldn’t be forgetting me.
In the past, I interpreted this doubt and hesitation in one of two ways; the person actually forgot whom I was, signaling to me that I was not important enough to remember, or she intentionally pretended to act like she was unsure who I was in an effort to make me think she thought I was not important enough to remember. Either way, in my mind, my forgetful acquaintance put herself in a position of superiority, in which she had no need to commit my existence to memory. So, I always walked away from such encounters feeling hurt and indignant, just as I had with Eric. In my head, Eric had to have thought he was too cool to show he remembered his childhood friend, to admit that his best friend had been a girl, or to show he didn’t care about the past. He had to be pretending.
But something happened a few weeks ago that made me reconsider all the scorn I’ve felt over people forgetting me. I caught myself feigning uncertainty about knowing a girl in one of my classes. I knew her face and that I’d sat next to her before, but still I allowed doubt to permeate my greeting to her; “Hey, you’re in my class section, right?” I immediately regretted the question and was ashamed that I’d asked, especially when the look on her face expressed a sense of surprise that I even needed to ask.
Really, I do this a lot with people I’ve only met briefly or haven’t spoken to very much personally. That guy from my religion precept, my RCA’s friend who occasionally stopped by study breaks, or the girl I met during frosh week at the party for that club I didn’t ultimately join- I remember all of their names and faces, but I think that they have no reason to remember who I am. So, I pretend that I’m unsure of their names when I see them again to avoid awkwardness if and when they don’t know me.
Perhaps I’ve been too quick to judge all of those people who seemed to pretend to forget me. Maybe they thought they were saving me from the embarrassment of being the only one to forget the other’s name. And now, everyone is part of a cycle in which they pretend to forget people’s name for the sake of politeness, but simultaneously thinks everyone who forgets his or her name is despicable and rude.
I started this article with the intent of shaming anyone who’s forgotten my name under circumstances when I thought it unacceptable for them to do so. I feel no guilt in shaming Eric, since his forgetfulness is unforgivable, But I now realize that my disdain for others might have been unfair; some people truly are bad with names and faces, and others are like me and just want to avoid a sense of awkwardness. Still, even though you might have good intentions, pretending to forget someone can have some unintended consequences. I will accept that you might not remember my name, but in return, never pretend to forget it.