Thursday, June 12, 2008

What's in a Name?

My afternoons are now filled with the "Summer Program", which means mothers who want their little darlings out of the house from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. can send them to the neighborhood recreational center at no charge. Plus they get a free lunch. So they polish up the, wings, on their little angels and send them to us.

To tell you the truth, the worst part of it, besides the ear shattering noise level, are the names.

Now I realize parents have the right to tag their offspring with a moniker of their own choosing. After all, they have to pay, in more ways than one, for those children for the next 18 years or so. College optional. In fact my own wonderful parents were so convinced I their firstborn would be a boy, they didn't even pick out a girl's name. Imagine their surprise to discover little "Jeffery Dwight" looked more like Mom than Dad. My first name was picked straight from the headlines....of the "Now Playing" section at the local movie theater. Mom liked one of the actresses, so that took care of name one. [Don't try to figure it out..."hope" has nothing to do with it.] My middle name was the curse of a high school girl "pledge for life"...that Mom and best friend Susan would name their daughters after each other. Mom kept her promise. "Aunt Susan" didn't use Mom's name until her 2nd daughter was born. At least I have names that are easily recognizable....and pronounceable.

Now, journey with me to today, where parents want their children to be "unique". Problem is, they're sticking kids with names that the CHILD has to live with through playground bullies and teachers who shake their head in despair that that many letters thrown together are suppose to create a name. The next statement is merely a point of fact and not intended to be racial in nature. In the South, where I live, black families often take names beyond a different spelling to creating new names. Sort of. In the summer program most of the neighborhood children are black. I'm the only white adult at the Center. Neither of us has a problem with that. In fact, I'm usually the first person they come to for help because I see kids, not colors. The names are often the biggest challenge. I turn it into a game. "If you spell it for me, I'll remember it," I tell them. Sure, it may take two or three times but they beam with pride when I finally get it. I'm usually good with names. Here I have to work harder because the names are not like the Davids, Steves, Michaels, Cindys and Jennifers I grew up with.

We have 3 boys named Lamonte, Lavonte and Davonte. The first boy was so agitated by the subtle change in letters, which makes all 3 look up when you call, that he's asked to be called Monte. We have a Raekwon and a Raheem. Little girls named Sumaya, Tykeiva, Yabre, Arieyelle and Kamare. But the worst "victim" of spelling is the sweetest little black boy with the face of an angel...and a devilish grin. His Mom was trying to use Marquise, substituting a "D" for the "M". And yet she spelled it "Darkies". In the segregated South of my parent's day, "darkies" was a derogatory term for black folks. Every time he runs up to give me hug of greeting, I want to smack his Mama for spelling his name in a way that still makes some folks laugh at what she has overlooked.

Creative names means nicknames abound, making our job twice as tough. Some kids get angry if you don't call them by a nickname. I always patiently explain that if I have to call someone other than their mother, say an ambulance, it's not helpful to say NeNe or Whitey is hurt when the insurance policy says otherwise. In the case of Whitey, it would be REALLY confusing as she is a beautiful little black girl with skin the color of coffee. When I asked how she got that nickname, she pointed out that her two sisters are considerably darker and that her Dad started calling her that because she was so much lighter. Sigh.

And so as we go forth today to make Father's Day cards, I will try not to linger with the kids whose parents stuck them with names like Erica, Victoria, Michael, Terrance or Tiffany. No, I will merely be thankful that the little 3rd grade boy I helped with reading is now a 6'2" 8th grader who decided long ago that life would be better for all of us if we just called him DJ.

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