Don’t Just Call Them What You Will: Names

by Valentina Gonzalez

“A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

Dale Carnegie

Many people take great pride in their names and in naming their children. 

Today, I take a lot of pride in my name, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, for a long time, I wished my name was something more…American. When I started school in America, the teacher wrote out our full names on desk plates. There was mine, “Valentina Najdanovic.” It was long and barely fit on the desk. It was hard to read, much less spell. When the teacher pointed to my last name with squinty eyes and her mouth in an uncomfortable gappy stretch and asked me, “How do you say that?” I was embarrassed. And at that age, I saw my name as an inconvenience. It was clunky. And it didn’t fit in. And that made me feel that I didn’t fit in. 

Not long after that encounter, my name was reduced to Tina N. Tina was short, and it made my name more comfortable…for others. And so it was from there on: Tina. 

Roll call was always interesting at the beginning of the school year, especially if there was a substitute teacher. One day in high school, our dance teacher was absent. The substitute called roll but I didn’t hear my name. I surely didn’t want to be marked absent, so I went up to her and politely said, “My name wasn’t called, but I’m here.” The substitute asked for my name. She glared down at the list, stabbed my name with her finger, and firmly replied, “I did call your name, Valencia. You weren’t listening. Sit down.” But that’s not my name. That’s not who I am. At that moment, I felt as if I was wrong and she was right, and it didn’t matter what my name was or who I was. I felt erased. I felt invisible.

Names are special. A name has the power to connect us to our identities. Because of this, many families take much time and consideration in carefully selecting a name for their child. They may decide on a family name or a name that is significant in some way. And naming conventions vary across the world. This handy guide offers schools and district staff guidance with naming conventions for Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog, Ukrainian, Urdu, and Vietnamese. When we use people’s names and make efforts to pronounce them correctly, we demonstrate honor and respect. 

My parents picked my name especially for me with good reason. My father named me after the first female Russian cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova. She was a pioneer in her field. Tereshkova did great things, reached above, and did not settle for anything less. She accomplished what many women in her day had not and paved the way for others.  

It wasn’t until I started college that I began to reclaim my full given name. In my younger years, I didn’t realize that there was power in being unique or that fitting in wasn’t the goal. I wish I could whisper to my younger self, “Hey Valentina Najdanovic, you don’t need to fit in anywhere. You belong here just the way you are. Long, beautiful, different name and all.”  Since I can’t go back and tell myself that, I do my best to spread this word to young students today. I don’t want any child to feel that they are less than worthy. I don’t want any child to feel erasable, invisible, or like they have to fit in. 

Many authors have written excellent books about names and identities that we share with students to help get them thinking and talking about these topics. Teachers can share these as read-alouds, shared reading, and independent reading paired with powerful group discussions. This list is only a starting place.

More Resources on Names

(Please suggest others in the comments!)

Getting Students’ Names Right by Colorín Colorado

The First Thing Schools Often Get Wrong for ELs Is Their Names by Chalkbeat

The Name (YouTube video)

Getting It Right: Reference Guides for Registering Students with Non-English Names by U.S. Department of Education

Pronouncing Student Names by Pamela Broussard

Valentina Gonzalez is a content creator, educational consultant for Seidlitz Education, and the co-author of Reading & Writing with English Learners: A Framework for K-5. 

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