What’s in a Name?

Recently, in the course of doing a spot critical reading on a television programme we follow, we stumbled across an article stressing the potency of names and the nature of what it called ‘word magic.’ The idea was that names were invested with power and how they were used mattered. To apply a diminutive was to detract from the power of the name, while adding to that of the person who coined the diminutive. Withholding or sharing a name became significant, altering a balance of power. It was a fascinating piece of the world’s mythology and it didn’t sound as spectacular as it might have because we had been drawing our own conclusions about names in a very different context.

Tuesdays have now, for some time, found us volunteering at our local Roman Catholic Primary School. As a rule we give our time to the primary 2 class, taking reading groups and helping with maths. The result of this is that after many months we have mostly put names to faces –quite the accomplishment given our lack of visual memory –and the result of this is that by and large we’re credited with a certain amount of authority. Even the Pears, most anarchic of reading groups, acknowledges that we are in control because when they act out of turn we can call upon them by name –something for which we are profoundly grateful.

This morning though, on returning from break, we were redirected to assist in Primary 4. We had no objection at all to doing this, but it did dawn on us as we caught the remnants of their carpet time, how shockingly alike these children looked viewed from behind. The girls all had their hair in plaits, the boys all wore theirs cropped short, and inevitably they were in uniform. Also, we realised as we took the Peaches out into the hall for a reading session, we had absolutely no idea what their names were.

Logically, these were older than the children we tend to work with and, therefore, more responsible, and there is without fail always one child who hovers at our elbow preaching the gospel of ‘teacher says…’ We still could have done with names though, because we have never yet met a group of children who when faced with a teacher not their usual one, don’t act up at least a little, just to see if they can, and these were no exception. And while we did have the names on their reading journals, we had no idea who belonged to which journal, with the result that they were much harder to reign in than they should have been. Another week or three and it won’t matter; we’ll get used to this set of names and match them to personalities and no doubt develop a system that makes them listen to us. We’ve done it before. But we can’t help wishing that introductions were done a bit more effectively on the occasions when we move in to help with a new class.

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