Nameless


When it comes to learning names, I don't.

That's not entirely true. I do pick up names when I interact with people regularly in contexts in which their names are used. That's how I've picked up names of everyone at Comedy Sportz: whenever they play, their names are announced throughout the show.

Church is another matter. I've worked in a lot of church settings, and even managed to learn everyone's name in a few of them. A few. One or two. In most cases, I only learn the names of those with whom I interact frequently. In my current church job, there are only a half a dozen names I can pin on people with any certainty, and only because they're introduced every Sunday when they make announcements.

Fortunately the piano player doesn't have to call people by name very often. If the pastor doesn't know people's names, that's a whole other thing, and it can get ugly. And if it's a teacher--well, you try getting a kid's attention with "Hey, you in the striped shirt!"

In church settings, I've occasionally been rescued by nametags. Many churches are now crafting durable nametags for all their regulars to wear on Sunday mornings as a sign of hospitality: no one's a stranger here. And the first day of school, I do see many students wearing nametags. Unfortunately, that's just the first day.

My name-amnesia is not unusual for someone in my profession. In the elementary world, teachers of both music and PE often have hundreds of students to deal with for short periods of time. I see my students twice a week, for thirty minutes each time. In a year's time, I'd probably have about a hundred names down. In my current position, I've only got until February: then I change schools, and it starts all over again.

One experience I've had in many places is learning the names of certain outstanding students right from the start. Sadly, these names tend not to belong to the best-behaved, brightest, or sweetest children. No, it's the kids who can't sit still, who are always getting up in someone else's business, abusing instruments, blurting out whatever's on their mind, tantruming because they didn't get the red rhythm sticks (and no amount of "You git what you git and you don't throw a fit" will get these darlings to accept the green sticks), responding to behavioral expectations with defiance--these are the children whose names I am already learning far better than I would like. There's nothing like writing a referral to burn a name into my memory.

I wish it was otherwise. I'm trying to make it otherwise. I want to be able to call more children by name. I start every year with name games, building sound pieces from the rhythms in each child's name. We'll continue mining this resource for at least another week, until my voice has recovered enough to begin vocal exploration, and even then, we'll probably continue playing them. Over time, I do pick up more names this way.

One of the liabilities in my current school is just how creative their parents have been in naming them. In Banks, I could count on every other boy being named Jacob. Margaret Scott is a school with a fantastically diverse population, and I'm dealing with Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish, Russian, Samoan, and African-American names. Many of these names are beautiful, with exotic rhythms that add wonderful flavors to our name games. They're also far enough outside my experience that I will have to hear and use them over and over before I really learn them.

Sadly, I won't get "over and over." Except with those outstanding behavior issues.

Why don't I take roll? Wouldn't that help? There are two answers to that question: 1) It wouldn't help. I've tried it before, and those names pass right through my brain. 2) I've only got 30 minutes with these kids, twice a week. 5 minutes taking the attendance of a class of 35 reduces that to 25 minutes. They'll learn more if I just let it go.

Don't worry, it's not all "Hello Kitty hoody! Put that down!" I introduce every name game with the truth: there are lots of them, and just one of me, and while I want to learn their names, I'm not going to succeed. Please be kind to me when I ask you for the tenth time what your name is, or ask you what that person's name is so I can call to him or her to STOP DOING THAT! And they're good about it. It's also helpful that I'm working to minimize the use of speech in all my classes, doing as much as I can by example.

Yesterday and today, I brought classes into the gym where I teach in a procession, moving at a certain tempo, shifting from stomping to tiptoe, jumping back, stepping forward, playing rhythms on my body, gesturing for them to watch me, then echo, and most of them ate it up. "What's he going to do next?" is like catnip for these children. Keeping the lesson mysterious, I hold their interest, and I don't have to use my voice.

It didn't work on all of them, unfortunately. The outstanding students will always be outstanding. More attention for me meant less attention for them. Sometimes peer pressure moderated their desire to act out, but not always. I had to get close to some of them to whisper (because that's all my voice can do right now) that they were not ever again to wrestle, shove, or otherwise endanger themselves and others during music. Even without using their names, this seems to get through.

But it would be far better if I could use their names, if I could simple catch their eye, say "Jordan! Here, now!" And better still if I could say, "Nicely done, Emily! That was beautiful, Simon!"

Because there is nothing quite as lovely as the sound of your own name being spoken affirmatively and affectionately.

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