A guest post from Okaikor Aryee-Price, a fellow IDEA (Institute for Democratic Education in America) organizer:
I know for many the naming of a child is a deeply personal and spiritual experience that reflects some symbolism of one’s cultural, traditional, and familial background. For my children, it was all of the
above. And because I put so much thought, research and energy into naming them, I expect people to respect that.
I get a little miffed when people ask me for a nickname or something short. Because of this, I am sensitive to how our names are more than just letters in a random word our parents chose to give us. When I posted a short story about a recent classroom experience on my Facebook page, it did not surprise me that many related to the story, or found themselves moved by my student’s story.
This story is a story about dignity, love, acceptance, and compassion. It is about identity and the small things we can do that go a long way. It is not a story about how well I aligned my classroom pedagogy to the Common Core Standards, or how well I prepared my students for some standardized test that will be used to evaluate my effectiveness in the classroom. As we explore the purpose of education, this story presents the importance of what it means to develop compassionate individuals who understand the dignity that exists in every human being, what it looks like to respect and honor that.
When I was twenty years old, I found out that my father at once in his life went by a different name from what we knew him by. Around 8pm one evening the phone rang. Always one to answer the phone, I pick it up.
“Yes, hello! May I speak to Thomas?”
“There is no one here by the name of Thomas.” My dad overhears my response and comes running down the stairs. “It’s for me,” he exclaims and smiles at me.
Interesting. In the twenty years I had known my dad, I had no clue. My dad had a secret he’d never shared with any of us. I sat down on the stairs and wondered if there were any other things we did not know about this person we called Daddy. I wondered if my mother had known his other “identity” before she passed away. I waited for him to get off the phone.
“So why did that man call you Thomas?” I needed to know. We knew our dad as Nii Ayikuma Arnold Aryee. My mother, grandmother, and family friends called him Ayi, or Ayikuma, but at work he was Arnold. We knew this. I never asked him where his parents had gotten the name Arnold because it was never of interest to me. But I was now curious who Thomas was and at what point did he lose himself.
He begins, “When I was six years old, one of my older brothers walked me to school. I was excited because I’d heard so much about school and all that I would learn. I could not wait. He held my hand and led the way.” When they reached the school, there was a priest at the door who greeted all the children. He was an American priest in colonial Ghana. He was the gatekeeper.
“What’s his name?” the priest asked my uncle.
“He can’t come to school with that name. He needs a Christian name.”
Disappointed, they turn around and return home. Determined to get little brother in school they flip through a book and find the name of the British educator, Thomas Arnold. It was the perfect fit in my uncles’ eyes. They return to school the next day with a new identity, a new name...
That story had a huge impact on me from that point onward. It is a story I tell me students, and will share with my own children and grandchildren. This is a story about dignity--a story of compassion. Fast-forward to September 2013.
This school year was the beginning of a new start for me. It would be my first full year at my new school, after spending 11 years as a high school teacher and department coordinator in my former district. This year I would be teaching seventh grade, a grade I’d always said I would not teach. I have jokingly said they terrify me. If you work with seventh graders, you know that it is an extremely emotional year for the students. If there is anything students need most during this time, it is extra love and compassion to support their socio-emotional development. I take a deep breath as I prepare for this school year.
On the first day of school, my students start making their way into the classroom as I greet them, each student one by one. “Good morning and welcome back!” They all respond “Good morning!” I smiled. I’m feeling good; I hope they accept me. They ask if they can sit anywhere they want, and I respond, “Sure! There’s no assigned seating in this class.”
I take attendance. With many names from different cultures and ethnicities, I am extra careful to pronounce each of their names properly. I mess up a few times, and my apologies are accepted. They nod their heads approvingly. I come to the last name on the roster. His name is Jayendra, but he cuts me off before I can finish and tells me he doesn’t like his name--I should call him Johnny. “Is Johnny the name your mother gave you?” I ask.
“It’s my middle name,” he replied, “and it’s easier to say!” Remembering my own personal experiences and my dad’s story, I protest: “I can say it...I promise I’ll say it right!” I want to be the antithesis of that the priest who greeted my dad on his first day of school, or those camp counselors and teachers I encountered in my life. I want to be a different kind of gatekeeper, the
kind of gatekeeper who modeled respect, honored the dignity in every individual and allowed them to be who they were.
But “Johnny” shakes his head adamantly and tells me he doesn’t like his name. I smile because I think we’ll get along well.
I didn’t push him any further. I didn’t give him a lecture on Eurocentric socialization and how it often makes us feel our very being and existence is inferior. I wanted to tell him how much I loved his name, and that he should love his name too, but I am patient, and I comply.
That was over a month ago, but it’s been on my mind every day since. In class, we have been discussing the theme of identity, who we are, and what it means to build community by accepting people for who they are and what diversity they can bring to the table. Full of so many questions and insight, a student asks: “Have you ever felt like you didn’t belong?”
I tell them my story. How difficult it was for me growing up with my name, and how many people wanted to call me something different all the time. When I was nine years old, I spent the summer at a stay-away camp being called “Tiffany”. Even as I type these words, feelings of embarrassment, shame, outrage, and confusion begin to surface. Like the priest when my dad was six years old, the camp workers greeted me. They asked me if I had another name I could go by. Noticing no one else had been asked that very question, I figured out early on they did not want to learn my name. But because I’d never been asked that question before, I couldn’t think of a name, so they helped me brainstorm names.
My brother did not hesitate to tell my grandmother when we returned home. I’m grateful he did because that became the impetus for my grandmother’s campaign to instill a sense of pride an honor in our names, ensuring I never allow that to happen again. And it never did.
As if we staged the dialogue beforehand, one student motioned toward “Johnny” and added, “Hey, Ms. Aryee Price, we call him Johnny, and that’s not his name.”
The entire class turned to “Johnny” a little confused, and I could see him crawling in his skin as they asked, “Huh?! What’s your name Johnny?”
A little bashfully, he responds, “Jayendra...” My eyes and ears canvass the class looking and listening out for anyone who would see this as an opportunity to make a jest of Jayendra’s vulnerability. He had exposed himself, and I need to make sure the space remained respectful.
The entire class echoes, “Jayendra!!!...” So far, so good I think to myself.
It didn’t take long before I heard someone say something completely off in an attempt to be funny. I spoke up, “Those are not his names. It’s insulting and hurtful to use this as an opportunity for comedy.” They quickly apologized. One student stated, “My bad! That was insulting. I shouldn’t have said that.” We moved on. I’m curious now and want to use this opportunity to find out more about Jayendra’s name. I want to prove that I can say his name, and once he sees my genuine interest in his given name, maybe he will begin to embrace his name as well.
Someone blurts out, “So why do we call you Johnny?” And he tells them he chose that because it’s easier.
I respond, “But I think Jayendra is easy to say. What does it mean?!”
He tells us it means “Lord of Victory!” I can feel the power of his name. “Lord of Victory!!? That just sent chills through my body! Lord of Victory!” I blurt out. He grins.
I wonder if any of his teachers have told him he had a special name. I wonder if any of his teachers showed him his name carried strength and power. I continue, “I like that...it’s beautiful and strong and has so much more meaning!” He smiles. Some of the students smile back.
I see he’s not the same kid I met on the first day anymore. He’s not the kid who frowned when I uttered his name. This was my final opportunity to help Jayendra come to terms with his identity. I proceed, “Can we call you Jayendra--"Lord of Victory?!” I smile.
Grinning from ear to ear, he says, “Sure!!”
There is no Common Core Standard that could capture the beauty of what took place on Friday. There is no value-added model or student growth percentile or statistical method that could measure the impact our classroom discussion had on Jayendra or any of the other students in the classroom. There is no multiple-choice option that could get the results or demonstrate the skills and knowledge we were able to construct in class that day.
Moreover, I can’t even properly measure the impact because I believe the impact becomes more and more significant each year, as my students have more lived experiences that help make meaning out of that classroom experience. These unscripted experiences make learning a more organic experience for all involved.
What about you? What do you think? How do you honor and instill respect in your students’ identities?
Okaikor Aryee-Price is a doctoral student at Rutgers University, teacher, former department coordinator, activist, wife, mom, and IDEA organizer. Okaikor is passionate about her students, and learning environments that encourage curiosity, creativity, community, and lifelong learning. Her dream is to one day design and open her own democratic school in one of New Jersey urban cities.
The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.