By Laura Moore

Picture
For the first few weeks of every school year, I take attendance on paper. Jotting notes in the margins, I write the phonetic spelling of each student's name, and I record the details they share so I can begin to understand who they are.  When I mispronounce names, I scold myself, making extra notes on my printouts, promising to practice so it won't happen again. 

I take this process seriously, because I believe the effort to hear, internalize and speak someone's name is the first sign of respect we show to another human being.  When we mumble over difficult letter combinations, or generate American-sounding nicknames to avoid speaking ethnic ones, we make a decision to render a portion of another person's identity as insignificant. Now this, of course, doesn't count if the person tells us to call them something different, but in my opinion, when we decide to make that change on our own without being told to do so, we are stealing something that doesn't belong to us. 

Because I believe this, I was deeply saddened last night at the funeral home, when I heard stories about my grandmother's maiden name.  According to my second cousin once removed, shortly after immigrating to America, my great uncle Tony went off to school.  When the teacher made her way around the room to complete the roster, she stopped at his desk and asked him to spell his last name.  Unable to speak much English, he stumbled over the spelling, and part way through, the student beside him finished his sentence, adding "M-A-N," to the "K-O-Z" my great uncle had already offered. Instead of working with Uncle Tony to figure out his real name, the teacher wrote down the letters, and moved to the next student.  The name she got was good enough, and since my great grandparents didn't speak English, no one in their family knew to how to correct it. Consequently, from then on out, Kozman--not Kozul--became their surname.  

As I listened to my cousin speak, I couldn't help but feel a sense of loss. While I recall history lessons about people changing their last names to sound less ethnic, I didn't realize that sometimes names were changed for you. And even more, I didn't realize my family name--a name that I have grown up believing was part of me--wasn't actually real at all. 

While names are just words, and our identities are much more complex than the two dimensional letters that combine to form those words, we fill the spaces between the letters--our letters--with so much weight. We fill them with tradition, personality traits, physical traits, talents, interests, achievements, and dreams. Our names symbolize our connection to the past, and as we live out our present, our names will belong to the future. 

Unfortunately, a century ago, when my great-grandparents came to this country, someone decided that getting their name right wasn't important. People just needed to call them something, and so they did--without checking the accuracy, honoring the legitimacy or respecting the history. In a single classroom interaction, my family's name changed, and by changing it, the only lasting link they had to the old county was snapped. And this snap was so clean, so abrupt, that it wasn't until the very last sibling in the first generation of Americans died, that members of the second and third generation learned who they really were.

Today, as I stared at my Great Uncle Mike's headstone, baring the Americanized version of his name, I felt sad that he, his parents and eleven of his siblings had been cheated for all of those years, cheated out of the correct combination of letters, the same letters his grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts shared. And as I held my six-month old son and imagined the life ahead of him, I vowed to better understand the past I know far too little about, an endeavor that will begin with a name that is much bigger than the letters on that gravestone and the syllables escaping the priest's lips.