Let’s name names
I have long been fascinated with memory. Thirty years ago (or was it longer than that?) I wrote a piece about forgetfulness, foreshadowing my current disability by decades. Maybe, it was all those knocks to the head I suffered as a young tomboy with more energy than grace, when I repeatedly fell off my bike, or ran into walls, or slipped on the ice, or got knocked out in some touch football game with boys twice my size. I did know enough algebra and physics to understand that other bodies carried more mass and volume than I did and that a two hundred and fifty pound boy could easily fling a 105 lb. girl into the trees with a simple wave of a big paddle-shaped hand. In any case, this memory loss falls hard upon me as I take my place at the top of the pyramid, not the class pyramid. No, just the little hierarchy and pecking order in my job and in my family. There is no one left to take charge but me. My job as a professor puts me right in the crosshairs of the slings and arrows of the young and the impatient.
As a college professor, I am in the classroom with seventy or more new students each semester. Research shows that this is important that you remember their students’ names as soon as possible even they still don’t know yours at the end of the year. So, I pledge to myself that I will learn their names as soon as I can. Not only for courtesy’s sake, but so that I can call on them even when they don’t want to be called on. Maybe, as they are in the middle of imagining eating a nice juicy burger for lunch or thinking about taking a nap or just about to grab their smart phone to distract them from what’s going on in the classroom. So, names are important to me, as well. It is embarrassing to refer to them by other descriptors like, “You there. Yes, you—the young woman who’s paying attention to me. Yes, nod your head. Good. Please, poke the student next to you and ask her to climb back into the classroom. That’s right! Thanks.”
Last week, two weeks into the term, I called on two students using wrong names. The class thought this was very funny. Not like joke-funny, more like, “we are so embarrassed for YOU” funny. Like roll-your-eyes-funny. I quickly recovered and pulled their correct names out of memory. (I called Kristin “Karen” and Katie “Kristin”—I didn’t think that so bad. Bad would have been calling Kristen “Kenneth” and calling Katie “Kim Kardashian.”) My brain was at least in the correct mnemonic space. There are semesters when I have had three young men in my class—all named Kyle, all about 5’ 10”, all wearing campus gear, all dark haired with a little beard, all in the back row. How to keep them separate in my mind?
More challenging is another case. I have a girl (Madison) in my introductory sociology class who wants to be called Steve because another girl named Mariah wants to be called Monica. She was explaining to another student that Mariah is her slave name; she wanted me to accommodate her request, which led to a series of similar requests by other students. Give them an inch on issues like this and pretty soon, they all want to be called Harry Potter, and then you really can’t figure out who deserves which grades because Harry has earned A’s, B’s, C’s and F’s on his exam.
So, to address this problem with learning student names, I am thinking perhaps, that I should ditch their given names and tag these students myself using my own assessment of their qualities and my own creative spin on their characters. What is nice about this scheme is that these names can be used each semester since from one semester to the next, there’s quite a bit of consistency in their behaviors and appearance.
For that student who keeps looking out the window,
‘the boy who turns to the light,’
For the boy who wears flip flops in the winter,
For the girl who complains each time I give an assignment, ‘the girl who whines without rest,’
For the boy whose baseball cap is way too big, ‘the boy with hat like a tent,’
For the third boy who is named Kyle in my class (see the discussion above) ‘the one who is named like the other two,’
For the boy who is always late, ‘he who arrives on the tortoise,
For the boy who nods off in class, ‘the one for whom sleeps comes during lectures’
For the girl who never reads the material and seems satisfied to pretend she has by making up answers that are wrong, ‘the storyteller with the false tongue,’
For the girl who brings neither book, nor paper nor pen to class, ‘she who bets on hope,’
For the boy with longish hair and big dimples, who seems always to be in the company of
‘the coed whisperer,’
For the young woman in the first row who keeps texting during class despite my warnings and harsh looks ‘she who raises my blood pressure’
And for the male athletes who are too big for the classroom furniture, ‘the boys whose knees climb the desks,’
Also in class are
‘yawning boy,’ ‘the girl with jewels in her nose,’ and ‘shiny blue nails.’
And, because of divine intervention and good luck, each semester, in my classroom, I find my favorite student, ‘the girl who smiles at the wit of her elders.’