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um... You Over There

Is that Megan, or Margaret?

By Katy Kelley

Recently, I read an article lauding a long-time teacher who remembers the name of every student she ever taught. How inspiring, I thought. How moving. How absolutely impossible! 

I started teaching back when that Einstein kid still combed his hair. By a conservative estimate I have taught more than 13,800 students, and I assure you I do not remember all their names. In fact, each year I must forget previous names to clear brain-space for new ones. If Miss Jones can name her every student since Taft was president (1909–1913), why can’t I name the 160 I taught last year?

Miss Jones begins to take shape in my imagination. She teaches in a one-room schoolhouse in Jonesville, where her students are her nephews-in-law and cousins once-removed. Miss Jones sees them week after week, in church and at the Piggly Wiggly and furtively buying beer at the liquor store in the next town. Of course she remembers their names.

And Jonesvillians give their children sensible names, spelled and pronounced sensibly. If they wish a daughter to be called Michelle, they do not name her Michael. If they choose the name Bob, they don’t embellish it with silent consonants and random squiggles, just to be different. (Literary note: the narrator of Moby Dick was christened W~bkob, hence his demand to be called Ishmael.)

Jonesville parents resist giving their children popular soap opera names like Brook, Ridge, and Cliff (less popular are Plateau, Gully, and Bog), and they eschew the trends that result in every third female infant being christened Tiffany. (The rest are named Tiphaknee.)

Miss Jones never faced a class containing Christine, Kristine, Krista, Chrystal, Krystel, Christy, Crissee, Kristen, Kirsten, Kjersten, Christopher, and Kristofer, with everyone else named Chris, Kris, and Cris. Or Ckris. Just to be different.

I envy Miss Jones. She doesn’t have to remember that Andrea is pronounced AN-dree-a in third period, AHN-dree-a in fifth, and Ahn-DRAY-a in sixth. An adolescent girl doesn’t adopt an easygoing “to-may-to, to-mah-to” philosophy about her name. Or anything else. She is relentlessly driven to discover her true self, so she can transform it into whatever will most annoy her parents. And each new persona requires a new name. (I’ve learned to dread Elizabeths. It takes an entire semester to cycle through all the permutations of those nine letters. Monday’s Liz is Tuesday’s Beth is Wednesday’s Elle, spelled “L.”)

Pop quiz: How do you pronounce Ciara? If your answer rhymes with a western mountain range, or a bejeweled head ornament sometimes worn by Queen Elizabeth II (who prefers to be called L, by the way), you’ve just incurred the wrath of CAR-uh. Or CARE-uh. How about Shayan? If your answer is preceded by “Come back” in a well-known western movie, wrong again. It’s Cheyenne. Boys are more easygoing about their names. This may be because the average young male hears only 0.8 percent of what you say. You could call him Shadrach, Meshach, or Abednego and he wouldn’t notice. 

However, males delight in nicknames— Gonzo, Face, Pigman, Notso (last name Bright)—that teachers hesitate to utter for fear the self-esteem police will beat down the door. Or Tumbleweed, which seems innocuous until you learn that it refers to the bearer using Mom’s Kenmore to dry his stash of a controlled substance.

So what does the future hold? Will the pendulum swing back, once again bringing class lists that follow the rules of phonetics and common sense? Of course not! Even now infants are being named by parents who communicate solely by texting. Prepare for the likes of JUS10 Timberlake and K8 Hepburn.

1 thingz 4 sure; it’ll be different.

Katy Kelley teaches in Tucson, Arizona.


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