What’s my name?
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What’s my name?

A teacher (and one-time student) ponders the power of remembering what someone is called

A few years ago, a former student approached me in the school cafeteria. Holding a mostly eaten slice of pizza, he looked me squarely in the face and asked, “Do you remember teaching me?”

“Sure!” I responded and, yes, absolutely I remembered him.

Without missing a beat, he continued. “So, what’s my name?”

Typically, when students leave your class at the end of the year, they move on. We may get a “Hi” in the hall or even a smile and a wave. This was a first. He wanted to know if I remembered his name, at that moment, right then and there, in the crowded, garlic-and-tomato-smelling cafeteria.

That verbal exchange happened awhile back and most likely the student forgot it during his next few gooey bites, but it has stayed in my gut. It got me thinking about the importance of remembering names of students and others.

Each year, teachers receive rosters of new student names and connect the dots of names to faces starting the first day of school. Then it’s learning those names and searing them into our memories — ASAP! This is not an easy feat, especially when there tend to be doubles and sometimes triples of the same popular name.

After the first day of school, students simply expect teachers to know their names, rolling off our tongues, as if we’d known each other a long time. This is tricky territory. Using my best name-recall strategies, students are still quick to correct me when I slip up.

“That’s not how you say my name!” they tell me.

During those first critical few days, I assign permanent seats to help with name retrieval. Mnemonics also come in handy, when I take the first letter of a name and connect it to something visual, since I’m a visual learner. One year, there was a girl whose name started with D and she wore great dresses. Voila — there was my connection.

When we know children’s names, they feel validated as people. It matters. Children long to be seen and acknowledged, so that they are no longer just a face in a crowd. They become a someone. They aren’t invisible. We care enough to see them in all their individuality.

Teachers are vital links in a chain in establishing and strengthening their blossoming identities. 

Recently, I opened the name discussion with my students. We were reading a book about how one teacher decided to change a student’s name because there were so many Marias in the class. She decided to call that Maria by another name, Mary, so it would be easier for her to remember. Maria was upset with the change and wouldn’t respond to the new name when called upon in class.

Among my students, there was a consensus of agreement that giving Maria a new name was a thumbs down. No one liked the idea of a teacher giving any student a new name. One student suggested that Maria felt “broken.” At the conclusion, the teacher realizes she’s made a mistake and re-establishes Maria’s rightful name and identity.

But what happens when inevitably teachers forget or mispronounce a student’s name? Unlike adults, the students immediately will stop whatever they’re doing and pointedly remind you. Adults, undoubtedly, also crave validation and yearn to be remembered by name. We are more apt, however, to let it go.

When I first moved to Teaneck several years ago, there was a woman who just couldn’t seem to get a handle on my name. Admittedly, I was offended and would’ve preferred an explanation. I wanted her to say something like yes, certainly she remembered meeting me, but she had a poor memory for names. I get that. After the seemingly umpteenth time that we were re-introduced, she again asked my name, and I felt like responding, “chopped liver.” Thankfully, I refrained, and we went on to become friends.

For me, the best approach is just to be honest and ask the child to repeat his or her name. I tell students I’m far better at recognizing faces than names. This is true in my personal life as well.

In my day, some of the popular names were Suzy (aka Susan), Sharon, Debbie, Cheryl, and Ellen. There also was a fair sprinkling of Esthers during my elementary yeshiva day school years. But that all changed when I hit public high school, and Esther often became Ethel”(as in Ethel Mertz) and Easter (mostly by kids with bully tendencies). Oh, how I longed to be one of the crowd as a Suzy, a Sharon, or even a Debbie! No one messed up those adorable names. Since I couldn’t be one of those, I decided to become Esti publicly. That was a nickname my family used, and it seemed way more in tune with my teenage image. Somewhere on the road, I grew into “Esther.”

Perhaps the person who most powerfully demonstrated the art of name recall was my mother-in-law, Beatrice Kook AH. When I accompanied her in the hallways and activities at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, I would watch her greet each attendant by name. How on earth did she remember a constant rotation of attendants and employees to the very end? It was quite remarkable.

In turn, they’d smile warmly and greet her. “How are you doing today, Bea? I’ll see you later.” I can’t help but think she got an extra measure of care because she made sure to remember people’s names.

Throughout the trajectory of our lives, we may change our careers, neighborhoods, and points of view. Our names, though, are who we are. They’re our identities.

Like in the wonderful old show “Cheers.” “You want to go where everyone knows your name.”

Esther Kook of Teaneck is a reading specialist and language arts teacher.

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