Leave Me My Name!!

Posted on September 16, 2020


“Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”

In this impassioned speech above from The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, John Proctor decides to face death at the hands of a corrupt government rather than allow officials to weaponize his name to harm innocent people.

I taught that play so many times that I involuntarily memorized most of it. Just typing this has unleashed a storm of great lines from the play in my mind.

I love it when I reach the part in a literary work, whether fiction or nonfiction, when a character’s name is discussed. Our names are such an important part of our identities, and their importance is reflected in the attention paid to names in literature.

For teachers, it is important for us to know our students’ names, and to call them by the name they prefer. It is an important way for teachers to demonstrate that they see and recognize each student’s individuality. To call a person out of their name is hugely disrespectful–and sometimes racist.

Yesterday I wrote about how multiculturalism was used to perpetuate racism through forced assimilation when a high school principal denied Latinx students the right to form a club based on their cultural identity. Today I focus on the assimilationist racist practice of erasing students’ identities by refusing to learn their names and giving them new, White names.

In Reflections of a Citizen Teacher by Todd DeStigter, my friend and colleague, a retired counselor from APS, explains how her name was taken from her–for the rest of her life–by her White teacher when she started kindergarten:

The teacher was going down the list of students, and when she got to my name, she didn’t know how to pronounce it. She hesitated, fumbled a few names, and then said, “Well, we’ll just call you Alice.” From that point on, everybody has called me Alice. They put it on the official school roll. All the kids, everybody, even my mother and my family, eventually called me Alice. I was only five, but I’ll never forget it. It was the day they took my name away from me (43).

Alice is not her real name, as DeStigter used aliases in the book, but the story is true. Because she didn’t take the time to learn how to say my colleague’s Spanish name, she traumatized her and violated her right to her identity. It’s clearly wrong and harmful, but that was decades ago, so why mention it now?

International Students, 2016

Unfortunately, the passing of decades has not brought an end to erasing student identities. The racist practice of refusing to learn student names persists; in fact, many international students are aware of the fact and arrive in Adrian with a pre-selected, common, American name, usually one syllable, like Sue or John, to reclaim a tiny bit of agency in relinquishing their identity to study at AHS.

While adults may claim that “it’s too hard” to learn to say someone’s name, they can’t make the same claim when it comes to mis-naming and mis-gendering transgender students. This practice is rooted in transphobia, not racism, but the two dehumanizing forces may intersect if a transgender student is also BIPOC. Like name erasure, mis-naming and mis-gendering transgender students is a violation of their civil rights as well as a clear signal that the adult lacks respect for students.

It’s 2020, and “Alice” is a great grandmother. It’s time for educators to end the racist and gender-based assimilationist practice of identity erasure at APS. Nobody deserves being called out of their name.

I, too, was mis-named often at APS, mostly by administrators, who called me “Miss” eddy. My name is ms. (pronounced with a final “z” sound) eddy. But one principal disrespected many faculty members by purposely mispronouncing our names. For him, my two-syllable name, “lisa” was a mouthful. He shortened it to “lease.” Likewise, my colleague’s name, “Dorothy” was beyond his ability, so he called her–I’m NOT kidding–“Dorth.”

Of course, we were disgusted, but we used humor to ease the pain. We added “Vader” to her new name, and claimed the dark side. She,too, taught The Crucible so many times she knows every line, and we enjoyed reciting (in quivering voices) Mary Warren’s lines about signing “the devil’s book–” when we signed the principal’s faculty meeting attendance sheets:

He come at me by night and every day to sign, to sign, to— . . . My name, he want my name…his eyes were like coals and his fingers claw my neck, and I sign, I sign . . .

But all kidding aside, calling someone out of their name is W-R-O-N-G, even if they can use humor to cope with being disrespected in such a deep way.

If adults at APS expect students to show respect by correctly addressing them, they should first model that respect by taking the time to learn each student’s preferred name and pronouns.

lisa eddy is a writer-for-hire, researcher, educator-for-hire, youth advocate,  musician, and gardener.

On Twitter: @lisa_eddy
On email: lisagay.eddy1@gmail.com