The First Gift

“Has your brother ever been called Nicholas?” my husband asks.  This question is one of those waking-up types, more to make sure he’s not dreaming than anything else.

“His real name is ‘William Nicholas’,” I answer.

“Then why does he get called Nick?”

My brother is visiting, completing repairs beyond our capability, and I realize that I’ve never thought about that. When I emerge from the bedroom to ask him, he’s awake and sitting at the table, contemplating next steps.

“Well, I came home on December 25th, so…you figure it out.”  Light dawns.  Born on the 20th, he and his twin sister were tiny and jaundiced and didn’t make it home until Christmas Day.  “Saint Nick,” he adds,” maybe not quite.”  He goes on to add that he’s always thought if he were a “Will” or a “Billy,” his life would have gone an entirely different way.  I think about Marge Piercy’s poem.  “If I had been called Sabrina or Ann” and her rumination about her name “like an oilcan, like a bedroom/ slipper, like a box of baking soda,/ useful, plain…” and Shakespeare’s Juliet, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Maybe the truth about names, the first gift given by parents, is somewhere between Nick and Juliet.

One way I had of opening a year with students, whether eighth graders or college freshman, was to ask them to investigate their name, write about it, and share it on the second day of class in a share-circle.  I’d tell them to consider nicknames, both cherished and odious, surnames, first names, almost-named names any possible name-related story.  I’d read Piercy’s poem and “My Name Is Esperanza” by Sandra Cisneros from The House on Mango Street.  Some of them struck gold, and we shared the wealth.

Once a young woman shared how her dad had carried a pink bootie with him throughout his wife’s pregnancy, so hoping he was to have a daughter to follow his son.  One eighth grader told how when she was three, she, obsessed by The Wizard of Oz decided she was going to be called Dorothy.  Rather than fight it, her mom bought her the gingham dress, and ruby slippers, and she had a Bassett Hound that she renamed Toto for the three months before her passion waned.  When I think of Heather, I still think “Dorothy.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was our second day of school.  Before they came to me, the eighth grade students had just left social studies class where they’d witnessed the first plane crash into the World Trade Center.  Not knowing what they were seeing, the teacher let the live footage run.  Then the second plane hit.  When the students stumbled into my class, they were shocked, undone.  One of the boys had had to leave; his dad worked in the Trade Center.  Others had family in New York City.  All was uncertain.

When they entered, the chairs were arranged in the circle, and on auto-pilot they found seats.  “What are we going to do now, Ms. Emerson?”  What are we going to do now?  I told them we were going ahead with our stories—because we really had no alternative.  This was what we could do now.  So we shared our writing, our lives, and bonded as a community with what we knew for sure, what we have in common: our names.


4 thoughts on “The First Gift”

  1. powerful rumination on names. i’m also totally stealing this idea for my class. how you went from your brother to 911 so seamlessly was really deft writing. great post.

  2. Names mean so much to many people. They are powerful expressions of who we are, and maybe who we hope to be. Your twist into 9/11 brought goosebumps. I bet that day’s stories about names was even more impactful than you could have ever imagined.

  3. This is a really interesting activity to do with student. I have never thought about having students share stories about their names. I work at a small school with only one class per grade, so everyone more or less comes in knowing everyone else. Any new students quickly get absorbed by the group. I think this kind of activity could be just as powerful for people who know each other (like you and your brother) as it is for people who don’t know each other. It gives us humanity right away.

    1. I always write with the kids, too, and share. Every year I have a new story to tell. Once you think about naming, yours, others, the topic widens. There is a great children’s book, “My Mommy Doesn’t Know My Name”that might be a cool writing intro for your kids. Let me know if you try it.

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