Slice of Life.
Remember that a person’s name is to that person
the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
— Dale Carnegie
I was very young when I learned that my last name was too hard.
Before I entered first grade, my mama had taught me how to spell it, how to write it. I don’t remember when I learned how to say it. I think I must have been born with it already formed in my mouth.
I entered school after two older brothers, so you’d have thought my teacher would have mastered the name by the time I appeared on her class roster. But not so. Teachers and fellow students stumbled over my name, incorrectly blended its syllables, and just plain avoided saying it.
At first, I didn’t realize my teacher was avoiding my name during roll call. She would draw out my first name and then pause. As if on cue, I would respond, “Present.” After all, I was the only “Alice” in the class. But it wasn’t long before I realized I was the only one whose last name wasn’t called. That was when I began to demonstrate a bit of free spirit: I let the pause last a bit longer, until the silence seemed to echo and a classmate or two would look at me.
Several times a day, we had to write our full name—first name and last name. It was part of the header required on our papers. I’m sure it was meant as a practice because you had to know how to write, how to spell your full name by the end of first grade. It took me no time to realized I had to begin printing my name as soon as I received a paper if I was to finish it in time. My last name was ten letters long. Coupled with my first name, I had to write fifteen letters — more letters than half the alphabet!
I was glad that my first name had only five letters. My folks could have named me “Elizabeth” — nine letters long! It was my aunt’s name, my mama’s older sister. But they had given me my paternal grandmother’s first name, and thankfully, she had switched to the English version before I was born.
Each time I wrote my last name, in my head and under my breath, I recited the letters like a line of poetry. Said one after the other, they made music. I loved their sound. I loved the feel of them as I wrote. I loved how they looked on my paper, filling it almost to the middle, sometimes past it when I wrote them rounded and fat. I was proud of my name.
When someone asked me to spell it, which was far too often for a primary student, I recited it letter by letter with the rhythm of a line of trochaic pentameter — a stressed, unstressed pattern for each of its five feet: / T i / C h / A n / C h / U k / !
And not only did my name have music, not only did it look impressive, but it also had a romantic story.
I knew my grandfather had brought this name with him, from his father, shared with his brothers, a link to the land of his birth. When he came from the old country, he had come alone and he had carried little else with him. But when he entered the Port of Immigration, he discarded this name. He followed the advice of others who seemed to know what to do in the strange new land. They’d told him during the voyage, “Everyone in America is ‘Smith’.” And so, when he stepped off the boat that had carried him away from his homeland, he claimed the name Smith as his and began a new life. When war broke out, he — Stephen Smith — served as an American soldier.
Then one day, he met my grandmother. She was a beautiful teenager, already on her own, working in the garment industry. Not quite five feet tall, she was filled with a fierce pride in family and had a bit of fire in her veins. When she learned about my grandfather’s name, she refused to marry him until he took it back. [In those days, changing one’s name was not a complicated legal process.] My grandfather was in love. He discarded Smith. And they married with the name of his birth, his heritage. So it is recorded in the United States Census Records.
I knew this story. And I loved my name.
I wonder . . .
I wonder if my mama knowingly used the trochaic pentameter to help me memorize the spelling of my name.
A trochee is a long syllable (stressed syllable) followed by a short (unstressed) one. Trochee has a falling rhythm that seems to suit spelling out loud. Pentameter is a line in verse or poetry that has five strong metrical feet or beats. That worked great to spell a ten letter name: / T i / C h / A n / C h / U k /.
And I wonder if I’ve always enjoyed reciting lines from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha because it uses the trochee — the rhythm of my name.
Thank you, Two Writing Teachers, for hosting #SOL17