What’s in a Name?

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What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

-William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Do you like your name? I have not always liked mine. Mary Frances is too goody-goody sounding, a sweet little Catholic girl worrying that her black patent leather shoes really do reflect up. And being named after the Mother of God? Well, that’s a tough role model to live up to.

When I was growing up, the name Mary was exceedingly common. There were lots of variations and add-ons: Mary Ann, Mary Jo, Mary Pat, Mary Lou, Mary Catherine. A family friend was named Mary Kateri, and I used to find that name humorous until I learned that Kateri is a Catholic saint. In any event, I grew up with an image of being innocent, proper, maybe even a bit prudish. I have lived a pretty circumspect life, seldom swear, and generally try, albeit unconsciously, to live up to my sacred name.

Names are an important part of a person’s identity. In the Bible, when God reveals his name to Moses, it is a pivotal moment. The name reveals who God really is and what His people’s relationship is to Him. Similarly, when parents name their children, they are often investing a lot of meaning in that name. Perhaps it is the name of a cherished loved one. Maybe it’s a way of carrying on their own legacy by naming their children after themselves.

And a person’s name affects how others see him or her. For instance, a study revealed that when applications for employment contained what is thought of as an African-American name, the applicant was 50% less likely to be invited for an interview.

Black names have come under a lot of criticism lately from both white and black Americans. Bill Cosby famously attacked stereotypically black names, even the venerated moniker Mohammed, as “ghetto” names. These criticisms reveal long-standing prejudices. The advent of unusual black names took off in the Sixties and Seventies, the age of black pride and a newly awakened appreciation of African roots. It also said to white America that blacks refused to be defined by the culture that has historically repressed them.

Let’s face it. Blacks do not have a monopoly on exotic names. Celebrities are notorious for coming up with unique names such as Apollo, Pilot, Kal-El, Bronx, Brooklyn, Blanket. The list goes on. And while there is some good-natured mocking of these names, when celebrities latch onto a name, it often becomes popular with ordinary Americans. The girls’ name Ava, for instance, has become hugely popular since Reese Witherspoon used it for her daughter. Furthermore, I may have made fun of Gwyneth Paltrow for naming her daughter Apple, but my own daughter is essentially named after a plant herself. The difference is that her plant name is in another language.

Economists Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, in their popular book Freakonomics, address the issue of what effect names have on our children. What they found is that for the most part, people can succeed or fail regardless of their names. An example from the book refers to twins named Winner and Loser. Loser turned out fine while Winner ended up in jail.

What’s in a name? Well, we have twice elected a president with the name Barack Hussein Obama. Maybe names don’t define us as much as we think. Time for this Mary to let her hair down?

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School Discipline Not a Police Matter

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This is not a post about police brutality or racial profiling despite the fact that the teenage girl at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina is black and the officer who roughly grabbed and tossed her out of her chair and onto the floor is white.

What I found incredible was that the officer was called in in the first place. The girl was not being loud, swearing, or threatening anyone in the classroom. She was committing what these days must be a common infraction: using her cell phone in class.

There were other ways to handle this situation, yet the teacher chose to escalate the situation by calling in first an administrator and then a police officer. The teacher could have quietly and privately asked the student to stop. He could have engaged her in the lesson by asking her a direct question. Asking her to leave the classroom was not the best idea. When she refused, he felt his authority was being challenged and therefore he had to act.

When I was a student teacher, I had a student who would literally turn his body sideways and look out the window for the entire class period. I chose to deal with him privately after class rather than create a scene in the classroom where the rest of the students were doing their best to learn.

The Spring Valley teacher could have dropped the issue and detained the student after class. If such intervention was unsatisfactory, he then could have involved a counselor or an administrator. He may have discovered more about the reasons for the girl’s misbehavior in that way.

It’s interesting to me that a number of students cut school to protest the firing of the school police officer. I am sure they view the girl as a troublemaker, and they may not be wrong. But student misbehavior usually comes from a struggle going on within that child. It would have been more beneficial for the teacher and the student to get at the root of the problem and help her rather than make her into a criminal.

The need for police officers in school is an unfortunate reality. School officers investigate incidents on school property and sometimes conduct searches for drugs or weapons. And certainly if there is a major altercation that occurs in school, it is beneficial to have an officer there to handle the situation.

But having a uniformed police officer come into a classroom to handle a matter of class discipline is not what we want to see in our schools. Ironically, calling in the officer created way more disruption than the girl ever had by using her cell phone.

Let’s remember that teens are still children. That frontal lobe in their brain is still developing, and they often make terrible choices. Teachers need to be role models, demonstrating calm and nurturing their students’ maturity as well as intellectual development.

Let’s hope the incident at Spring Valley High can be a learning experience for us all.