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The Truth About Ethnic Names and Their Marks on Childhood

I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.

Psalm 139.14

How Repeating My Name Over and Over is a Way of Life

When I was in fifth grade, my teacher decided to give me a new name because it was easier to pronounce. I recall feeling flustered by the whole ordeal—like I had been causing an inconvenience for being who I was. This alone made it hard for me to reconcile one of her comments to me during the reading group. She sat in the center of our half donut-shaped table and said in a clear and frank tone that I was a scholar. I didn’t know what the word meant at the time but I asked around. I felt embarrassed to ask her myself—I was intimidated by her towering presence and her weekly assessments of our oral readings of poetry and prose, among other public speaking exercises.

I realized being called a scholar was a good thing and I held on to that bittersweet memory for the rest of my academic years all the way through the MFA. I shake my head when I think about it because it summons ambivalent feelings of inadequacy, weakness, and cowardice—more to do with having allowed her to call me a new name than having rejoiced in her suggestion of my scholarship.

My mother eventually found out about my renaming. She wasn’t impressed. She quickly admonished me to never allow anyone to call me other than my given name. She said that it didn’t matter if English speakers couldn’t say it. At least, she said, they could try and that’s better than assigning you a name I didn’t give you.

When I went to college and joined The Third World and Native American Students Press as a writer/contributor, I learned that being given a name by someone other than my family was a form of colonization. It bewildered me to think that I was being oppressed that year in fifth grade—all with my consent.

It makes perfect sense now.

Last year, I read Jennifer Gonzalez’s post “How We Pronounce Student Names, and Why It Matters” from her blog Cult of Pedagogy. She describes the types of teachers who fall into one of three camps as they approach names which they cannot pronounce: fumble-bumblers, arrogant manglers, and calibrators. She also gives tips to those teachers who find themselves wrestling with mutilating someone’s name by taking it as an opportunity to understand and grow.

She further described much of what I was feeling in my younger years:

People’s reaction to this issue varies depending on their personality. If your student has a strong desire to please, wants desperately to fit in, or is generally conflict-avoidant, they may never tell you that you’re saying their name wrong. For those students, it might matter a lot, but they’d never say so. And other kids are just more laid-back in general. But for many students, the way you say their name conveys a more significant message.

Back then, I wasn’t brave enough to confront my teacher about giving me a new name, so my mother took the lead. It was settled in some sort of way, I can’t remember how; maybe during a teacher-parent conference or an open house. By then, my classmates had already called me by that new name and were telling their parents about the whole thing. Eréndira has a new name, they’d say.

They made a big deal about the whole thing because I believe they were astounded that an adult—our teacher—couldn’t pronounce someone’s name correctly. They were dumbfounded that our teacher would go so far to unburden herself of those stressful occasions when she’d mangle my name. Because my peers were Spanish speakers, we were stunned by the fact that our teacher took such measures to avoid shaming herself in front of fifth-graders. However, I believe I was the one who felt the shame even more.

Today, the routine has always been to pronounce my name slowly. To write it phonetically. To enunciate it. And repeat.

How we perceive a person goes beyond what we think of them at first impression. Their name is just as important and it matters if you're unable to pronounce a name that is unfamiliar to you. How do we practice sensibility when we are confronted with a new person with a new name? Click to read full post.

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Blog Comments

That is so sad. I loved your post but how sad because your name is so beautiful. Like my grandson, teachers leave scars on a child they may never,ever know they’ve done. Thanks for sharing, I’m right next door, # 70

Thank you, Del, for stopping by to comment. I don’t ever know what happened to my 5th-grade teacher.

Being a counsellor and teacher and administrator throughout my career in the public school system your comments resonated deeply with me. I always felt that a student’s name was such an important part of his or her identity and their sense of how important others viewed them. I always tried to learn as many students names as I could so that whenever I saw them in the hallways or had them in my classes or office I could call them by name without any prompting from them. I always got a sense that this was really important to them. That they knew I cared about them and valued them as people. I am so sorry one of your teachers was indifferent to the power of using names in helping to form others’ identity and in building respectively relationships. Thanks for your article Erendira.

And thank you, Anne, for your very thoughtful reflection here. I am so glad you read this with care and with a deep understanding. I am glad you are making a difference in the lives of your students by simply being aware of this significant part of their identities. It is immensely appreciated, and I am sure your students value that as well!

I have definitely been known to mangle a few names by accident. (My dear Iranian neighbor comes to mind. Between my poor language skills and her accent I’m fairly certain I’ll never say her name right, but I keep trying). My name is Bethany, which you wouldn’t think is all that hard, but I’ve been called Brittany or Stephanie more times than I can count. On the phone I’ve always learned to spell it. My daughter is Althea which I think is quite phonetic but she’s consistently called Athena or Sierra. I’m so sorry that you had a teacher who didn’t care enough to try to pronounce your name.

Bethany, I am so sorry you run into this too! I think the digital age has made this facet of identity a bit more bearable. We’re able to constantly have our names imprinted wherever we’re coasting through on the internet; however, the times required to interface or dialogue are more predictable. It’s good to be prepared. I learned that one!

it’s nice to meet you Erendira. i can’t imagine a teacher not being able to pronounce your name!! it is so obviously phonetic. i enjoyed your post today:) so helpful. it reminded me of some bullying i experienced when i was in jr. high…no, it wasn’t from the teachers. it reminded me of that powerless feeling you have as a kid…trying to be polite to teachers, needing help and wondering if you are exaggerating the seriousness of what is happening. now, as an adult, I realize the seriousness of what was done!

I’m so glad to meet you here too, Martha! When we are children, the slightest infractions to our dignity are memorable and significant. As adults, we tend to let things slide off our backs more readily, but as children, we are more impressionable indeed. I’m so sorry you experienced bullying. I wish there was a deeper awareness then about such things, more proactiveness. I can’t imagine what it’s like now, but I remember some of it too…

I so understand this! I struggle to pronounce some of my students’ names (especially Havasupai last names), but I make it a point to call each student by his or her name–even if it takes me the first week of school to get it right!

That is good, Anita. I appreciate your efforts. I am sure your students will remember that about you especially!

I loved your post, Erendira, and I think it is beautiful. I also identify. I grew up in the heartland of Iowa of Czech parents and had a name that was often mispronounced with a snicker. It wasn’t that difficult! At my college graduation, to top it off, the dean mispronounced it when handing me my degree! I met and married a Chinese minister classmate and got a simple name with only 4 letters… and would you believe, it is so, so often mispronounced by Americans too! They are obviously careless and thoughtless. How can someone pronounce “Choy” another way? You would be surprised! I can imagine how our FMF hostess deals with the way people mangle her married name! When I lived in the Chinese culture, they are much more respectful and honoring of one’s name.

Ohh, Leona. So sorry about that graduation incident. Believe me, I know what you mean!

I can relate. I thought I had a fairly simple last name before I got married, but nobody seemed to be able to pronounce it. Because of that, I’ve always been very careful to be sure that I can pronounce people’s names correctly. If I can’t the first time, I keep asking until I get it right. Your name is YOU, and it’s respectful to learn others’ names correctly.

Yes, Ruth! I think when we are hit with the experience, we tend to have a deeper sensibility about it when it comes to others of like circumstance. Thank you for observing kindness and for being aware of others!

You always speak and write so much truth. Your writing is elegant and sharp where it needs to be. It is a balm to my soul. Thank you for sharing this story. It is a reality for so many of us. Abrazotes.

Thank you, Carolina. So glad you stopped by to read. I am thankful for your kind response.

I guess I have been sensitive to recognizing a person by their name because I’ve always gone by my middle name, Christine, and always had to explain at the beginning of the school year that I did not go by Mary, and I did not go by Christine, but rather by Chris. Some teachers took it in stride some teachers argued and made it like this was something that I did but it was done to me before I was even born! I have met several people’s with ethnic names and I have attempted to pronounce it and they have said oh just call me doesn’t such. I have made it a point to look at them and say but that’s not your name help me pronounce your name! I have to be humble when I go back there are many Asian and Indonesian and Polynesian names that I’m not able to figure out or pronounce, but I tried to make it a whole thing about that’s your name, and your name is important.

Another reason or evidence that I’ve considered names important as fact that we chose the names for our children based on the Hebrew or Greek meanings for them. We wanted biblical names and we wanted the name that we called them to mean something. The most obvious one is our daughter named Faith and she was named that because that pregnancy had a couple very dangerous points in it and by our faith in God he delivered her whole and healthy! Thank you for sharing this and thank you for making this real issue easily understood!

It’s sad when people won’t try to learn and pronounce names correctly! Your name is beautiful. What does it mean?

It means enchanted flower, derived from the Purepecha native people of central Mexico. A legend relates to a 16– 17-year-old Princess Erendira of the P’urhépecha led her people into a fierce war against the Spanish. Using the stolen Spanish horses her people learned to ride into battle.

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