All in a Name: A Back-to-School Post

August 20, 2020 Comments Off on All in a Name: A Back-to-School Post

When our kids return to school this fall, whether in person with a mask or at home over a computer, there will be unusual circumstances to navigate. But for many children, pandemic or not, the start of school is already fraught with potential landmines. Will I make a friend? Will I like my teacher? Will I understand the rules?

Will my name be mispronounced?

Those of us with Anglo-Saxon names may have never considered this last question, but those with African, Asian, Black-American, Latinx, and Middle Eastern names know how commonly, if unintentionally, their names are mispronounced. What does it feel like to be on the receiving end of a teacher or classmate stumbling through your name? What does it feel like to be expressly teased for your name? What does it feel like to be asked to shorten or alter your name to make it easier for classmates to say?

For many, personal names play a central role in cultural identity and identification. If we don’t put in the work to pronounce a name correctly, we’re not allowing that person—in this case, that young child—to be seen. At best, we are belittling them; at worst, we are erasing them.

One of my daughter’s dearest school friends has a name whose South Asian pronunciation is different than English phonetics would suggest. The difference is subtle, but my daughter will correct anyone—especially me—who doesn’t say it with the right cadence. I’ve been touched by this gesture of loyalty over the years, and I know it’s owing to the care the girls’ teachers have taken to create a space where students are actively working to understand and appreciate one another.

What I’ve also frequently noted is how musical my daughter’s voice sounds when she speaks her friend’s name. The idea that all names can be celebrated for their musicality is the inspiration behind Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow’s new picture book, Your Name is a Song (Ages 4-8), a fast favorite with my daughter. Tenderly illustrated by Luisa Uribe, the story centers a Black American Muslim girl, who leaves her first day of school dejected and angry because “No one could say my name.” As her mother works to rebuild the girl’s confidence, she creatively and thoughtfully debunks many of the negative stereotypes associated with non-Anglo names, especially those with African or Middle Eastern origins: they’re hard to pronounce; they’re cacophonous; they signal danger; they’re made-up nonsense.

When the girl’s mother arrives on foot for pick up, she kindly instructs her daughter to stop stomping in frustration: “Please don’t stomp unless we’re stepping in a drill team.” (I love this mom already.) Then she bends down, takes her daughter’s face lovingly in her hands, and asks her to explain what happened. Could her teacher at least say her name? The girl answers: “She tried. It got stuck in her mouth.” The story is full of astute, child-centric responses like this, which ingratiate the young reader.

What follows is as much a metaphorical journey towards advocacy as it is a literal walk home from school. The mother encourages her daughter to appeal to the human ear for music, to present her name as a song to her teacher and classmates. “Yes, girl! Names are songs. Sing your name. Your teacher will learn to sing it too.”

Initially, the mother’s suggestion is met with skepticism: “I can’t say that! Names aren’t songs!” But the notes coming off a street musician’s violin are contagious, and the girl quickly begins to smile and tap her feet, whispering some of the non-Anglo names her mother sings out: “Mamadou (MAW-muh-DOO) is a beat! Thandolwethu (THAN-dol-WEH-tooh) stretches out like a love song!” Every name in the story is immediately followed by a parenthetical guide to pronunciation, encouraging parents and children alike to practice rolling the syllables off their tongues.

Quickly, the girl’s excitement begins to falter, as she recalls other unpleasant moments from her day. At snack time earlier that morning, she tells her mother, “some girls pretended to choke on my name.” But the mother uses her daughter’s words as further directive, advising her to let her classmates know that names come, not from the throat, but from the heart. Like music, names sound best when they’re said with passion, with umph. “You got to go deeper to say Ahlam (AH-Hlam),” she says, pounding her chest.

Then the girl remembers another concern: some people think her name sounds scary. Ah, her mother responds, as the two walk by a sparking streetcar, that’s because “some names have fire”:

“Xiomara (see-oh-MARR-ah) fights a battle in your mouth. Tongues bow to say Bilqis (bil-cKee-SS), Ju-long (JOO-longk) lunges like a dragon and Oudom (oo-DOM)…Oudom is…”

“Magnificent!” The girls lips trembled.

“Yes, girl! Just like you!”

Finally, the girl wants to know how she should respond when kids say her name sounds “made up.” Here, the mother points to the sky to invoke the connection between names and ancestry. Some names are made up, she attests, because long ago their ancestors’ “real names were stolen…so they dream[t] up new ones.” Made-up names are powerful because they reclaim an agency once lost. They’re pulled straight from the stars. (A guide at the back of the book cites the origin and meaning of each of the twenty-five names mentioned in the story.)

As we make our way through the story, we’re aware of a quiet suspense building: we don’t actually know the girl’s name, the one that started all this in the first place! This is a skillful move on the part of the author, keeping the reader in eager anticipation. And we won’t discover her name until the end, on the girl’s second day of school, when she only goes back because she has “songs to teach.” When the teacher asks the class to line up, the girl looks to the sky and imagines fire. When the teacher goes down her roll call, the girl hears how each of the names—even Benjamin (BEN-juh-men) and Olivia (o-LIV-ee-uh)—has its own tapping beat.

When the teacher gets to our girl’s name, she hesitates and frowns, just like the day before. We know the girl’s moment has arrived, and she rises to the occasion. She sings. But she doesn’t just sing her name. She sings the name of her teacher and the names of her classmates. She even draws out the monosyllabic name Bob with a “BAW-AW-AW-AWBB!”, which makes my daughter laugh with delight every time. The children in the story love hearing their names sung. And they love hearing the girl’s name sung. They want to try it out, they want to get it right, this twelve-letter hyphenated name with Mandinka and West African origins. They want to embrace this girl as one of their own.

And I know you’re wishing I’d tell you what her name is. But that would ruin all the fun.

As we send our children back to school in one fashion of another, may we send them with the confidence to sing out their names—and with open hearts to receive the names of others.

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Book published by The Innovation Press. All opinions are my own. affiliate links are used, although I prefer we all shop local and support our communities when we can.

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