The first time it happened, I tried to handle it diplomatically. As a former teacher, I have a lot of respect for other teachers, and I am a parent who believes in making my children take personal responsibility for themselves.
My daughter, then in second grade, came up visibly upset. As she sat down for a snack, I asked her what was going on, and she confessed, her eyes brimming with tears of frustration, that her teacher kept mispronouncing her name.
I asked some probing questions and discovered the teacher wasn’t her new second grade teacher, but a teacher responsible for one of the special classes the children visited once a week. Meaning, my daughter had been a student of this teacher for over two years.
We talked through the situation, and I asked my daughter if she respectfully corrected the teacher. My daughter sniffled and said yes, every time. I told her the next time it happens, to let me know.
And it did happen again. The very next week.
I asked my daughter if she’d be OK with me addressing the situation, and I was met with relief. I emailed the principal and teacher stating that it was offensive that my daughter had to correct the teacher weekly, for years. That was the last week my daughter’s name was mispronounced by her teacher.
I figured we had nipped this issue. But of course, my daughter continued to grow up. The next year she advanced to the third grade where she was placed in a class where she was one of only two black girls. From day one, all the way until the last day of school, the teacher mixed up the names of the two girls. The girls looked nothing alike and had names that were nowhere close to similar. Yet despite the girls correcting the teacher, every single time it happened, they were constantly called by the other’s name.
You see, like most parents, my husband and I painstakingly combed through baby name books and websites to find the perfect names for our four children. When each of them joined our family by adoption, we chose to combine their birth name, given to them by their biological parents, and the name we liked, resulting in unique names that told a story and held a shared history.
My kids’ names? They are essential to who they are as humans.
What hurt was overhearing fellow white people snarl in disgust or stumble over those names and the names of other people of color. Such names have been deemed “too ethnic,” “ghetto,” or strange. I’ve heard it all: “How did their parents come up with that one?” “What’s with the apostrophes?” “Why in the world would someone choose that spelling? It doesn’t make sense!”
Yet these same individuals have no issue with a white mom who names her child Clementine Waterfall or Braxton December.
Basically, the names of people of color often make white people uncomfortable, so it’s easier for white people to default to judgement rather than take a few moments to say and spell the name correctly.
The fact is, you don’t have to love my kids’ names. Frankly, your opinion of what the kids’ birth parents and we chose to name our shared child is irrelevant. But you do have a responsibility to get their names right.
It’s certainly one thing for a teacher, therapist, coach, principal, or bus driver to stumble over a child’s name at the beginning of the school year or activity. But as the weeks and months move on, there is simply no excuse for not calling my child by his or her correct name. In some cases, it’s literally spelled on a child’s back (such as a sports jersey), monogrammed on their backpack, or printed right in front of them on their “handwriting guide” on their desk.
I’m a former college writing teacher, and I certainly understand being overwhelmed by names. I had 70 students a semester for eight years on end. It took me weeks to learn my students’ names. I resorted to writing some names out phonetically on my roster, and I implored my students to correct me if I mispronounced their name or called them by the wrong name. I certainly made mistakes along the way, but I worked purposefully to make sure I got my students’ names right. And if I can manage to get 70 names right in less than sixteen weeks, then I’m certain a person who is educating my child for nine months can do the same.
To all school professionals and staff: if you can wrap your head around differentiating the three Aidens and two Olivias in every single classroom, than you can get my child’s name correct. Trust me, she’s the only one in her class, school, and district with that beautiful name. My child shouldn’t feel dehumanized, problematic, humiliated, or othered. Her job isn’t to teach you something so simple as her name.
Please know that my daughter (and, in fact, all my kids) adore school. They love putting on backpacks, riding the school bus, playing with their friends, and learning new skills and information. I want them to continue to love learning. And one way you can make this happen is by making sure that when you refer to them, when you call upon them when their hands are raised, that you use their correct name.
There’s the age-old question: What’s in a name?
And as a mom, I have the answer. A lot.