Monday, May 18, 2009


To name is to know.

"We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language." -Benjamin Lee Whorf

And, I would add, in names.

As a mediocre but persistent athlete, a student, a teacher, a colleague, and a mom, I know the power of using someone's name. People calling my name have made me run faster, try harder, and listen more carefully.

I'm lucky that so far remembering students' names hasn't been too difficult. When I proctored the standardized test for another teacher's students a month ago, I learned their names quickly even while they rarely spoke. Now they say hi to me between classes.

My pet peeve is a colleague calling me solely by my last name. As in, "How does it feel to lose, Phelps?" At first it didn't bother me when I taught in another district--just felt like I was on a sports team all the time. Then I realized that the reason people called each other by last names is because the turnover rate was so high that no one bothered to learn everyone's first names.

Names are intimate.

My relatives, particularly ones I see rarely, cycle through the family tree when they talk to me. I get called by the names of my mother, my grandmother, my cousins, you name it. (Excuse the pun.) I admit that I've done the same even in my own immediate family, usually when I'm reacting quickly out of annoyance.

Naming goes beyond simply showing someone that you remember. In fact, I eavesdropped with interest on the conversation of a consultant/teacher at a certain popular coffee shop. He complained that the class he taught met so rarely that it was always difficult to remember names. "I know who they are," he insisted. "I know about them, their personalities, their interests, their families, how they write ... but I forget their names." Despite reviewing the list quickly before each class, he confessed that there were plenty of awkward moments in which he couldn't use their names. "But they all remember my name," he ended a bit guiltily.

I know that guilt of getting it wrong. I remember how it felt as a top student in the class getting called by someone else's name and thinking that this teacher obviously thought I wasn't important enough to remember. Even when it was an obvious mistake, I distanced myself from that class for the rest of the year.

Last Thursday, with only a few weeks left in the school year, I distributed graduation stoles to a group of seniors being recognized in an academic ceremony. Each stole had the student's name embroidered on one side. It's amazing how important that personalization (worth a whopping $2) was to them. And yet, two names were misspelled. Today I returned those stoles to our vendor to get them fixed. After four years of high school and innumerable hoops to jump, the least we can do is get their names right.


Blogger Balloon Pirate said...

I have a hard time with names. But I come by it naturally. My name's Brian; my brother's is Bruce. I was ten before I discovered my name's not Broo-ian. I'm in a group that has as it's members: Jeannie, Jenna, Jennie and Jenette, plus a fifth woman: Cathy.

Guess which one I always get wrong?

(It's a trick question, I get them all wrong)


7:41 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home