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.
© 2017 Alice Nine. All rights reserved.
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
What a beautiful story. When I was a Principal, I announced students’ birthdays over the PA system as a part of our school’s morning announcements. I had a student named Bijan Sardaryzadeh. I practiced his name so many times so I could say it right! I hope he, like you, loves the sound and spelling of his name.
What a wonderful story! I love that you found poetry in your name, and that you proudly carried it’s history with you. When I was in the classroom, I used to have kids interview their parents about the origin and meaning of their last names. Having grown up with my Scottish grandmother telling me all sorts of stories about her family and their name, I was surprised at how many kids didn’t know the origin of their last names. Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece, Alice!
Your grandma must have been a force to reckon with. How wonderful for you to know the history of your family name.
She was a spunky lady with class, a survivor through tough times.
A lovely story and a beautiful name. How sweet that you loved the sound of the letters in your name. (I was about 8 before I realized not everyone had to spell their name when they said it. I smiled when I read how you began to “demonstrate a bit of free spirit: I let the pause last a bit longer…” – because I have done that myself.) I think it says something about others when they take the time to be sure they are getting your name correct.
Ah, so you had to spell yours, too! Maybe doing that caused us feel a uniqueness that sparked the bit of free spirit . . .
Wow. I hope I would have been the kind of teacher who would have worked to best ensure I and your classmates could say your last name. That truly shouldn’t be too hard to do.
This is an important slice–feels like a section of a memoir. The details about the way you learned and the bit of rebellion you mounted interest me as a reader. I Want to read more.
Oh, I think you would have gotten down to my 6 yr old level, Mary Ann, and rehearsed it with me until you got it. 🙂 I think I will add “memoir” as a key word on this piece.
I love stories of our families and of our names. This was beautiful.
I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Susan. Thanks for coming by.
That is an amazing story tracing your name back through 2 generations.
Thanks for stopping by! 🙂
thats a great story ! thanks for sharing!
Thanks, Jennifer. 🙂
I love the story of of grandfather’s name. It colored your whole being didn’t it….gave you a sense of pride and belonging?
Yes, it did. I like the way you put it: “colored your whole being.”
What a fabulous story about your name. I love this. I am grand your grandfather took his name back. I may need to write about my name in the future. Thanks for the idea.
That will be fun to read … about your name. Please be sure to let me know when you do!
Names are great – although I have to admit with shame I am one of those teachers that struggles with last names. I have learned to stop and ask children to help me learn how to say their name correctly. I love the family story. Thanks
Thanks, Joanne. Some names are different than we expect… I met a teacher this past week in person after communicating for several months via email. After I heard her say her name, I had to rehearse it several times to get it right. I had had it all wrong. 🙁
An interesting and beautifully written post. I have always found names to be fascinating. I know that my grandfather shortened his last name when he came to this country from the Ukraine to make it easier to pronounce. I am sad to say that I never got the full story. Thanks for sharing the history of your name.
Thank you. 🙂 Do you know what your original family name was? I like learning about names… it is part of history and I love history.
I’ve had a few first graders with long names and it was hard for them, just like for you, Alice. What a beautiful story to share. My children learned to spell their last name before writing because they heard it spelled over and over on the phone, when shopping, etc. Although short, no one knows how to spell it.
🙂 I can relate to that because, believe it or not, I have to spell and pronounce “Nine” all the time. People just can’t believe it is exactly like the number. Some try so hard to give it two vowel sounds and two syllables. And they are forever asking how it is spelled.
That name-pride made me smile. I grew up a Quackenbush (11 letters). My dad actually taught me a song that spelled our name. When I was little I never wondered where it came from, but now I wonder. When I started to get teased about it in kindergarten, he taught me to quack–a convincing duck call, not a cartoon version. After that I stood tall through the jokes.
Oh! I love your story and I can just hear the teasing you must have be subjected to. Today, I was searching some microfilm files of old newspapers in NJ, looking through the social news column of the little community where my mother lived as a child… Anyway, as I was skimming one newspaper I saw “Quackenbush” 🙂 I noticed it because I’d just read your comment.
I love reading this story of your name. It is always so interesting here everyone’s special story. I love how the rhythmic beat helped you to spell it.
Rhythm is a good supporter of memory… and after all the years since 1st grade, I still spell it with the beat.
This is a beautiful slice of love and rhythm and meaning. Thanks for sharing.
🙂 So glad you stopped by, Margaret.
Thanks for sharing some family history and the rhythm of your name with us in this delightful slice. I loved the story of your grandmother’s fierce pride and I loved the image of you writing your last name one letter at a time and celebrating its poetry and music.
Thank you for your words, Molly!
I really enjoyed your two-generation’s worth of stories about your last name. You really took me into your first grade classroom, with your little duel with the teacher as she called roll! And I also enjoyed your exploration of the idea of rhythm and the trochee. A very nice piece. Maybe you can share it with some people who share your name!
Thank you, Fran, for coming by. I smiled when I read “little duel.” It was just a few years ago that I realized the connection of the rhythm of my name spelling and the trochee.