Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Rose by Any Other Name?

Do you know the story of your name? Your parents went through a process and maybe even a long list to arrive at the eventual winner. If you've had the privilege of naming a child, then you know it is a huge responsibility. The story of your child's name may be more dear to you than the story of your own.

The story of your name is special, not only because it makes you feel loved and connected, but also because you carry that name with you the rest of your life.

Why am I thinking about names? It's that time of year when I ask my students, "What's in a name? Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Would you still retain that dear perfection which you own without the title affixed to you at birth?"

Juliet wants to believe that names don't matter, that they don't define us in any meaningful way other than to keep us from being referred to as Hey You.

My students and I beg to differ. Our names matter. They matter a lot. I might go so far as to say we are defined by our names.

Family Ties
Our names connect us to our families, and while this is problematic for Juliet, it's a positive thing for most of us. More than half of my students have first or middle names they would describe as family names. A few of them cringe at something archaic or unusual, but most like the connection the name gives them to their heritage.

Both of my sons have family names. My oldest carries the name of his father, his uncle, and both his grandfathers. We Irished it up, but it's essentially the same name. My youngest carries a version of my maiden name. Both of them know the origins of their names, and both are proud of those origins.

It's not unusual for a student to have a different last name than his or her parents. In fact, I NEVER assume a parent I meet has the same last name as the kid. The kids deal with it, but my discussion of names always reveals their hyper-awareness of it. One of my eldest son's best friends was at the courthouse on his 18th birthday to change his surname. That need to be identified as kith and kin is powerful.

Get it Right!
It is a universal annoyance to have your name spelled or pronounced wrong. I grind my teeth when people spell my name with a "C." That's not my name. It's not who I am. I can't identify with the word when I see it written out. (Notice that I refused to even write it out.)

The same goes for Brittany and Britney, Sarah and Sara, John and Jon, Kirsten and Kristen, Lucas and Lukas. And oh holy cow, if I say Brianna like fawn instead of like fan, I get my head bitten off and handed to me.

I can't really get mad when Brianna corrects me. What I said isn't who she is. The incorrect pronunciation is as foreign to her as that "C" name is to me. Most of us are outwardly polite about it, but it bothers us. Almost every student I polled has received an award or a trophy or a jersey with their name spelled wrong. They may have smiled, but it was a bitter disappointment. When someone gets your name wrong, they get you wrong.

A student with a particularly unusual name believes she has become more assertive over the years as a result of correcting authority figures in the spelling and pronunciation of her name. Her name has shaped her personality.

Last but not Least
Some students believe the placement of their last name in the alphabet has some bearing on their personality. What happens when you are perpetually last? Perpetually first? Does it inform self-perception? One student whose last name begins with a "W" said he works harder to stand out because he doesn't want to be perceived as last or at the bottom. When a list of names for awards or recognition is called, no one listens past the F's or G's, so he makes sure his name is called often. People eventually notice.

My maiden name was a "W," so I can identify. I hated always being at the end or in the back. Subsequently, I arrange my own seating chart so that a student has an equal chance of being in the front or the back regardless of the alphabet.

So yeah, Juliet was wrong. I don't think we would perceive a rose as smelling as sweet if we named it cat poop, and I don't think our self-perception would be the same if we had a different name. We experience the world through language, and the names we assign both objects and people are the means through which we understand them.

Shakespeare thought so too. Romeo and Juliet couldn't escape the definitions placed on them by their names. And really...neither can we.

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