Fifteen years ago, I taught at a high school in a mountainous area of eastern Kentucky. Kids who qualified for free or reduced lunch made up more than 70% of the student body. There was zero diversity; nearly everyone was poor and white.
In these classes, I had very few Johns or Marys, but I did, once, have four Michaelas, spelled Mikkalya, McKalya, Machala, and Michaela.
(Incidentally, one of my colleagues, who had just moved to Kentucky from California, admitted to me that she was thrilled to see names like Latosha and Tionna on her rosters, thinking how diverse her class populations would be; she was stunned when she walked in the first day and saw that everyone was white.)
One day in the teacher’s lounge, another colleague railed about student names.
“It’s ridiculous! Who names their kid that?”
“Crackheads,” another teacher said.
“And they get furious if I mispronounce it,” she said. “Why should I be expected to know every crazy name like this?”
After teaching for 19 years, I have had my share of Blaydes, Jaydiens, and Sh’naes. And I strive very hard to learn how to correctly pronounce their names and then call them by their name every chance I get.
Maybe the parents believed giving their baby a unique name would be at least one distinction in a life where no other achievement would be forthcoming. For whatever reason a child has been given a name, when she walks into your classroom, that name represents who she is. Whether they love or hate their name, whether they are the embodiment of the otherness their parents had hoped they would be or not, their name equals their identity.
As teachers, who hope to use our influence to lead students to greater self-awareness, we must begin by honoring our students’ names— ergo their identity—by pronouncing their names correctly. Butchering a kids’ name is an alteration of their identity, and it creates nearly a colonial imbalance of power.
I once had a student who was born female with a female name, and with the support of her family, decided to transition as a male with a gender-neutral, non-traditional name. All her teachers had met with the family and had agreed to make the name switch on a designated Monday. She went home identified as one gender with one name; he came back to school identified as another gender with a different name.
On that day, I wrote his new name on the board as we were dividing up into reading groups.
“Whose ‘Skailer’?” said another boy in class, who pronounced it, “scale-er.”
“That’s me, and it’s Skailer,” said the transgendered boy, who pronounced it “sky-ler.”
“No, it’s ‘scal-er’,” said the first boy.
“It’s my name,” he said. “I guess I know how to pronounce it correctly.”
English teachers might wail at this story, wringing their hands and bemoaning the corruption of the English language and the necessity of preserving the purity of the mother tongue. But I’m not one of them.
The Common Core has my back, stating that students should understand that language “usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and is sometimes contested.” Students should be alert to political doublespeak and sloppy language that showcases slopping thinking, but I do not believe teachers should stand their linguistic ground on the backs of the poor girl whose teenage mother had stars in her eyes when she named her daughter, “Auroar’eh Eshtellha.”
Teachers, be proactive. As soon as your rosters are available, print them off and review the names. Seek out faculty who may have had the student the previous year. It’s a rookie’s mistake to stand up in front of a class on the first day of school and call roll, botching every name on the list. It embarrasses the kids and makes you look like an idiot. Instead, seat the students in alphabetical order, and while they are occupied with filling out a getting-to-know-you worksheet or an intake form, you can creep quietly around the room with a clipboard, point to each student’s name, and ask, “What would you like for me to call you this year?” Some of them may prefer a nickname that bears no resemblance to their given name. Then write the name phonetically or in a way that will help you remember how to say it correctly, and repeat it over and over and over to yourself until it sticks. Use it every chance you get. Greet them by name when they walk in your door every day, and say good-bye to them by name as they leave.
You and your students—all your Dollyeias, Kirandas, and Brook’lyns— will be happy you did.