What’s in a name? Santa Clara County schools attempt to find out
By Khalida Sarwari
It’s a moment almost every starstruck tourist who visits Hollywood dreams of; the moment when they spot a star. Not the ones who dot Hollywood Boulevard, but real in-the-flesh celebrities.
Feb. 26 proved to be such an auspicious day for a number of people who joined a bus tour of Tinseltown. Thinking they were getting a peek into the Dolby Theatre, they walked instead into the middle of the 89th Academy Awards ceremony. Host Jimmy Kimmel was at the front of the venue, waiting to greet them right below the stage.
“What’s your name?” He asked a petite Asian woman as she timidly walked down an aisle packed with movie stars. She answered: “My name is Yulery.” Appearing befuddled, Kimmel moved onto the man standing behind her, who answered “Patrick” to the same question. Kimmel responded, “See, that’s a name.”
It was a brief moment in the nearly four hour-long program, but it lasted long enough to spark the wrath of the modern day Greek Chorus, a.k.a. the Twittersphere, where Kimmel’s shtick was decried by many as “casual racism” and condemned for also poking fun of “Moonlight” actor Mahershala Ali’s name throughout the telecast.
While such jokes about names may seem innocuous though tasteless, they can do damage not only to those on the other end of the jokes but also to anyone with a name that is difficult to pronounce, according to educators interviewed for this story. Such comments essentially delegitimize ethnic or unusual-sounding names, they say, and can lead to people—kids, especially—feeling ashamed of their names and their very identity, with some even taking on an “American” name to make introductions less painful.
Yee Wan, director of multilingual education services for the Santa Clara County Office of Education, experienced this firsthand in an English language class years ago as an international student from China.
“My instructor, (while) really well-intentioned, gave me an American name,” she said. “‘Winnie sounds good, so you should be called Winnie.’ Starting from day one, she gave me my American name as Winnie, but for some reason Winnie never resonated with me. I kept using my ethnic name. She kept on calling me Winnie.”
Last year Wan, along with Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools Jon Gundry, launched a campaign called “My Name, My Identity.” Backed by the Santa Clara County Office of Education, the initiative aims to build a more inclusive and respectful space in schools throughout the county by having educators, students and the wider community pledge to put extra effort toward pronouncing people’s names correctly.
Wan said her experience of constantly explaining her name to others and hearing about a student who had spoken out against mispronounced names at a graduation ceremony inspired her to develop the “My Name, My Identity” initiative in Santa Clara County, where the demographics lean one-third Caucasian, one-third Asian and one-third Hispanic.
Respecting students’ names is important, Wan said, because it acknowledges their identity and family history, as well as culture and language. This effort can go a long way toward fostering positive relationships in the classroom, which can lead to improved academic and social outcomes, Wan said.
“Name is basically the most important thing to an individual,” she said, “because in a big crowd, the minute your name is being called you notice that. So when I take the time to learn your name, I’m sending the message that I care about you; I want to know who you are and I respect you. It’s really about building a relationship with students.”
Alternatively, when teachers don’t bother to pronounce a student’s name correctly, they’re essentially saying parts of that student’s family, life and culture are not as valuable as theirs, according to Rita Kohli, an assistant professor in the graduate school of education at UC-Riverside.
It’s a point she argues in a 2012 study she conducted at Santa Clara University with Daniel Solórzano, a professor of education at UCLA. In the study, titled “Teachers, please learn our names! Racial microaggressions and the K-12 classroom,” Kohli and Solórzano argue that mispronunciation of names constitutes a microaggression, defined by Kohli as “seemingly innocent or well-meaning comments, jokes, compliments that aren’t always visibly assaults, but they do have underlying links to institutionalized racism and have cumulative experiences that can have detrimental impacts on peoples of color.”
Their findings indicate that such microaggressions can have lasting effects on students.
“A lot of kids felt shame around their name, embarrassment that their name was a burden, that they were a problem,” Kohli said. “So, a lot of kids that grow up into adults felt they needed to shrink themselves to make it easier for the world instead of…celebrating who they are.”
Forms of “shrinking” may include shortening their names or changing it altogether, Kohli added.
She recommended teachers spend more time reflecting on their biases and cultural limitations and enlisting their students’ help by having them write down their names phonetically.
Colleen Lynch Espinoza, a Los Altos resident and kindergarten teacher at San Miguel Elementary School in Sunnyvale, has found unique ways of promoting the importance of names in her classroom. San Miguel, with a predominantly Hispanic student population, is among the 15 school districts and charter schools in the county that have adopted the initiative.
In her Spanish-immersion classroom, Espinoza employs games and activities as a method of learning names. She discusses the differences between Spanish and English names and the importance of name accents, not just with her students but even their families, who often leave accents and dual last names off forms thinking no one would notice or care, she said.
“It’s been a really interesting experience talking to our community about, no, you need to be proud of it,” she said. “It’s important because the parents chose that name for their child, so it’s a very easy way of showing your respect for that student and their culture.”
One of her students, Quetzali Celaya, says she is proud of her name, which is Aztec for “bird,” though she sometimes goes by “Q” around friends and family.
“I felt like my mom named me like that because I’m the only daughter,” she said. “I like it because it has the ‘q’ at the start and I’m the only one that has ‘q’ in the family.”
Though it doesn’t happen frequently, when people do mispronounce her name, Quetzali said she feels “awkward, because I think they’re bullying me.” But she usually stands up for herself, she said, and has a response ready. “That’s not my name, please don’t say that.”
In a diverse school like San Miguel, Quetzali isn’t the only one with a unique name. Fourth-grader Juwairia Quraishi is used to spelling out her name. She’s also used to hearing people say it incorrectly.
“Yeah, I’m used to it,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I get it; my name is hard to pronounce. I really don’t mind.”
But, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t irk her from time to time.
“It makes me feel if I had a shorter name I wouldn’t have to go through the trouble of telling people or spelling it out,” she said. “It’s kind of annoying sometimes.”
Most of the time, she goes by “Jojo,” she said, a nickname coined by her aunt from when she was just a newborn. It was her grandmother who named her Juwairia, she said, and as far as she knows, in the Pakistani culture it means “something about heaven.”
Despite being occasionally annoyed by mispronunciations, Juwairia said she likes her name. “It’s a really pretty name and I’ve never met anybody who has the name Juwairia, so I kind of feel unique in that way.”
Espinoza’s colleagues Terri Choate and Michelle Hostetler are also big fans of the program.
Hostetler said she has always emphasized the importance of names in her fourth-grade classroom. The Campbell resident’s approach is to have her students break names down in pronunciation syllables. “People want it to be correct, because there’s a lot of pride in who you are as a human being,” she said.
When she comes across a name that’s hard for her to pronounce, she owns it right away and then asks for the student’s patience until she gets it right, she said. She knows her last name isn’t the easiest to pronounce, especially for the parents of some of her Spanish-speaking students. But the effort is worthwhile, she said, because it’s about honoring people above all else.
“I can remember my grandmother was an immigrant…in the ‘20s, (when) it was very much you conform to what was American at the time, and that meant abandoning her language and abandoning some of the cultural practices. And I think it was very noble of her family to do that, but she lost a little bit of something that she could have passed onto the family,” Hostetler said.
Choate, a Cupertino resident who teaches first grade, said that at the start of every school year she makes it a point to clarify names that are difficult for her to pronounce during roll call and then has her students take turns saying “Hello, I am proud to say my name is.” She’ll also have her students introduce themselves and then one another.
“This just kind of sets the tone in terms of being respectful, because I think names are the first things kids tease about,” she said. “I just think it’s really important to honor their identity because that’s when it starts, when they’re young.”
If she gets a name wrong, she said she apologizes and asks the student to raise their hand and help her sound it out. She said this also serves as an opportunity for students with easier names, like say, Charles, to inform her what, if any, nicknames they’d like to go by.
The lessons don’t taper off at the end of the first week; they’re carried throughout the year and don’t revolve around only names, but also delve into what it means to honor and respect others, Choate said.
Some of her sensitivity likely stems from Choate experiencing classmates making fun of her last name when she was a student. She remembers feeling embarrassed and cringing anytime a teacher would announce her name. So that’s why when she hears people being dismissive about the importance of such endeavors now, she finds their attitude naive.
“It’s a matter of respect, and just telling people to get over stuff, that’s not cool,” she said.
Launched at the California Department of Education’s Global Education Summit in February 2016 in collaboration with the National Association for Bilingual Education, “My Name, My Identity” is an ongoing program.
Just this year, the county office of education held a contest encouraging students to use artwork to express the meaning of their names. The student winners were recognized at a showcase in April. To read other participants’ stories or learn how to participate, visit mynamemyidentity.org.