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Getting a handle on them

With a new grandson just two days old and awaiting a name, I find myself pondering what's in a name anyway?

If you've been teaching for some time, you've probably ceased to be surprised at some of the names that parents choose. Interviewing students, taking registers at the beginning of each session, it's easy to cause a shy, ill-at-ease student extra embarrassment because you use the name on the application form - perhaps a name that makes them squirm.

Names go in and out of fashion, too. At one time, it wasn't unusual to find yourself with six or more teenagers in your class all called Tracy. But at least Tracys could feel they were part of the crowd, and not singled out by an unusual name.

Even if you avoid obvious clangers, you can still be making a decision which will affect a child's progress. It's been suggested, for example, that people with odd names can have big problems later in life, and that teachers will award higher marks to candidates whose names they like.

Some researchers suggest that girls with pretty, feminine names will somehow be constrained to live up to a stereotyped feminine image and that those with unisex names will have more freedom to choose. Little boys with strongly masculine names - well you get the picture.

We spend time and energy encouraging girls to play with building sets and encouraging little boys to nurture their caring side, but maybe we've already placed Primrose Lucy on a career path that doesn't involve building bridges.

In practice, however, most young people forge their own paths, whatever their names. In college, the old stereotypical divisions which used to exist have disappeared, and you'll find girls enthusiastically enrolling for automotive mechanics or engineering and lots of boys who have decided they want to train as care assistants.

That's good, and all the more remarkable considering society's careless promotion of old stereotypes. In a recent report about life skills courses being offered to privately-schooled students who were deemed too pampered to cope with university life, the picture which accompanied the report showed, yes, a teenage boy grappling with the mystery of a packet of washing powder and a washing machine.

At a car boot sale, I watched as two women attempted to collapse a brightly-coloured plastic chute they had bought while a three-year-old toddler waited patiently with them. A third woman was on the phone, obviously relaying instructions: "Two buttons on the side." By now, there were three women struggling to find the buttons. After a minute or two, the little boy reached out and said: "There the buttons." With his help, the construction was neatly folded. The three women gazed down at the toddler. "Clever boy," they said in unison, slightly awed.

I bet the toddler's name was Butch or Grant - one that has him destined to build railroads or leap tall buildings in a single bound and always to look out for the girls with pretty names who need a man to rely on.

Finding the right name, thank goodness, is less important than ensuring opportunities are as wide and varied as possible, and that we don't let ourselves slip into bad habits by reinforcing archaic stereotypes.

And the new baby? Joseph Alexander. I think I'm happy with that.

Carol Gow is a former further education lecturer.

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