What’s in a Name? Everything.

By David Pappas

A basic application of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to education suggests that a student who feels threatened will not learn, just like a person without shelter, food, or water cannot be expected to operate at their highest potential. Fire, tornado, and – in the school shooting era – lock-down and active shooter drills make safety a fundamental priority in schools.

Further, educators often see classroom management as a safety issue: orderly, well-run classrooms facilitate students being permitted, for a time, to shed daily worries to focus on timeless principles and content.

Indeed, the classroom should be a safe place.

But there is an oft-overlooked type of safety that goes beyond the physical, beyond the mental, to the existential.

When the lessons are taught and commencement has commenced, students should know more than content and skills; more than safety from shooters, more than that their teachers were deft at handling the vicissitudes of the classroom.

Fundamentally, each student should know that they were known. And that people knew their name.

And said their name.

But what’s in a name?

The roster said, “Evelyn*.” But on the first day of school, as I was taking attendance, the student pointed to my computer and said, “It says in there Evelyn. But I go by Asher*. Please call me Asher. And them. Not her. Call me Asher; I’m sorry.”

Wow. In this moment of disclosure, Asher was letting me in on their existential truth: I am not who I have been thought to be. I am not who I was. I am becoming.

“You have nothing to apologize for, Asher.” I will always call you by your name.

But what’s in a name?

I had seen her around, heard friends call her in the hallway, and even interacted with her once or twice, but this was my first year as her teacher. I’d always been struck by the beauty of her name. Delila*. But as I took attendance, I found the spelling in conflict with the pronunciation; nonetheless I kept using the only name I’d ever heard. Delila.

But her name was spelled D-a-h-l-i-a; like the flower; my English teacher brain felt compelled to inquire further. So, one day I knelt at her desk, smiled, and quietly asked, “Your name isn’t Delila, is it?” A faint smile formed on her mouth. “Your name is “DAH-lia” isn’t it?” Her smile widened; she chuckled. Truth.

“But Dahlia, why do people call you, Delila?”

“Because I got tired of correcting everyone,” she replied.

I frowned at the notion of a young Black woman suffering the daily indignity of being called by a name different than the one given her. What more fundamental way to honor and help a young woman grow and “become” than to pronounce her name correctly?

What’s in a name?

I asked Omoro if he’d been named after a family member. “Kind of,” he said. “You ever heard of Roots?”

“The television movie?” I asked.

“Yeah. Kunta Kinte’s father’s name was Omoro. I was named after him. And I am proud of that.” Daily, this 17-year old Black man embraced the connection to his African roots (pun intended). So, every time I say his name – Omoro – I acknowledge something far deeper than a moniker. When I say his name I see him in the present, acknowledge his past, and, through that interaction, help contribute to a hopeful future.

What’s in a name? Everything.

We are our name. We learn as that person. We sit in classrooms facing front, our name digitally etched, recorded. But the student – often so powerless to affect the learning process’ trajectory and purposes – has one means of control: their name.

David Pappas is an English teacher at Herron High School in Indianapolis.

*Names have been changed