In 11th grade, my AP U.S. History teacher assigned our class a research paper. The assignment required us to interview veterans who served in WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Admittedly, not too many high school assignments stick out in my mind, but this one does because I was prompted to sit at the feet of men who experienced the woes of war that, at the time, were beyond my comprehension.
That’s what teachers hope for – to make long-lasting impressions through the learning experiences they offer their students. In all my years thinking up things for my students to do, I have fallen short many times in the impression-making department. Granted, English very seldom falls on the “My Favorite Subject” list, but I wish I could have a do-over for many of those beginning years when I really didn’t know how to be a super engaging teacher.
But there was this one assignment my students seemed to enjoy. I asked them to conduct a bit of research on the meaning behind their names. Why were they given the names they were given? Most of them had never thought too much about it, actually. But to me, I had a reason behind the assignment that went far deeper than just another grade in the grade book.
There is something powerful behind our names, and I wanted my kids to learn and feel that power. Not just sprays of ink on a birth certificate, our names hold a singular purpose that can be served by no other word. Names separate us and identify us. They prompt thoughts in the minds and hearts of those we meet, and they outlast us when we are gone.
For my students, finding meaning and identity in a world that had so often forgotten them was extraordinary. Their souls needed a boost; their place in the universe needed clarification, and the meaning behind their name offered them those things.
Especially the discussions with their family were quite revealing to my kids. Most discovered that their names were thought about extensively, prayed over religiously or passed down honorably. Can you imagine the shift in perceptions these young people had? To have spent the majority of their young lives feeling discounted, ignored, overlooked and then to have the revelation that yes, indeed, at one point in their lives, they were the focus of someone’s attention for all the right reasons? A total shift in perception. Despite the neglect or abuse, the wrong directions or wrong choices, my students began their journey on this Earth with meaning. For most, the revelation was gut-wrenching and encouraging all at the same time.
The goal for them then became rekindling that purpose, and as their teacher, I pounced on the opportunities to speak to those purpose-filled names with every ounce of positivity I had. Soon, Merissa and Kiana and Faythe and Kapua and Ta’kaila and so many other girls began to ponder the power behind their names, and young men like Zack and Antown and Gregory and Alfonzo and Juan began to consider the strength behind theirs. Pride replaced conditioned dismissal, and confidence replaced apathetic displeasure.
I think that’s the coolest part of being a teacher – seeing what our students don’t see or can’t see. But the true delight comes when occasions arise to present those visions to our kids. To say to Joseph and Tyler and Xautyca and Jada that no matter what comes their way, they have the fortitude, the willpower, the drive to overcome, because that’s the sort of gumption offered when we realize who we really are.
So, I challenge you to find out about your name. And when you do, embrace your identity with the pride and confidence for which it was initially intended. After all, there’s no one else who can.
Sheryl Green is a secondary educator in Columbus. Email her at email@example.com.