What's in a name?

31st July 2015 at 01:00

Learning students' names on the first day of term, as I have done for my entire career, can make a profound difference in class.

It keeps my mind sharp and makes me fully present. It feeds my relationships with students as individuals, not mere numbers. Most importantly, it makes class members feel valued and respected at a time in their lives when many are lost or beset by anxiety about what will be required of them.

Techniques for honing this skill abound. Mine - learned in 1974 when I took a memory training class from Arthur Bornstein (whose books are still in print) - is straightforward word-image association. "Imagine me born with a stein of beer in my hand," he said to us, "and you will never forget my name."

I begin by calling the roll, verifying the pronunciation of names and constructing a seating chart. Then, as the students are completing a brief questionnaire about their education and interests, I mentally associate something about each one's physical appearance with them that will trigger the name for me later.

A broad-shouldered, muscular man named Ben reminds me of the hero in the movie Ben-Hur. The name Leslie connects with an image of her walking her dog, Lassie. We are limited only by our imaginations - the more humorous or exaggerated or colourful, the better.

It always surprises me how many students take their names for granted. Few have asked their parents for the reasons behind their given names or looked into the history of their family name, so I sometimes ask them to enquire and report back on what they discover.

To encourage them, I relate the background of my Polish last name which means "a fort, a place of retreat". I tell of my paternal grandparents' journey prior to the First World War: leaving their homeland as children, never to return, coming through Ellis Island to begin a new life in the US.

I also relate how in 1941, several years before my brother Glenn or I were born, my parents were on a drive in Southern California. My mother saw a City of Glendale sign and said - true story - "You know, Stan, if we ever have sons, wouldn't those be great names?" I tell the students I am relieved that they were not driving through Cucamonga.

But this focus on names also dovetails with our literary studies and inspires sudden flurries of enthusiasm as students look into the meaning of characters' names.

We recently had a charged discussion about Paris in Romeo and Juliet after students connected him with his namesake from Homer's Iliad. Much like our talk about the hero from Beowulf, whose name is derived from the old English "beowa", meaning "bear" and "wulf" for "wolf", which explains why he has the strength of 30 men and why he is so sly, so cunning.

Of all the student evaluations I have received over the years, one of the most memorable said: "I love how he knows us for us." I take this statement seriously and am greatly moved by it.

The first step towards connecting with students is knowing who they are. Names do matter.

Dale Salwak teaches English at Citrus College in California, US

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