I like to listen to books while I work. I was wearing earbuds when this person was speaking to me, and couldn’t hear what she was saying.
I thought I heard something, so I turned to look. The woman who was housesitting was talking to me. She had been saying, “Excuse me.”
“How long are you staying?” she asked me. “I’m not rushing you… I just wanted an idea.”
We were the only two people in the house, and she was looking right at me. There was no question who she was talking to. It was me. But, there was something missing. What was it? I couldn’t place my finger on it, but there was a feeling.
She hadn’t used my name.
I have a confession to make. I am not good at remembering names. I wish I was. I have worked on it. When I was in highschool, I actually read a book about how to remember names. I still remember most of its points, but I can’t remember who wrote it. Too often, I will come across someone whom I had already met, and their name completely escapes me. So, there it is: My concession of unclassy behavior prior to proposing you do what eludes me.
Back to the Tale
The encounter with the housesitter happened yesterday. This was probably the thirtieth time I had met her. Earlier in the day, I was surprised to find I already had her phone number saved. At that time I learned the name that she normally goes by. I programmed that into my phone, as well.
The feeling materialized into a thought: This woman either didn’t know my name or chose not to use it. Why would someone decide another person’s name was not worth saying? In the past, I have witnessed people speak to hired help differently. More than the words they used, it was the way they said them. They spoke down to the person whom they believed was beneath them. Sometimes the way they do this is through the words they do NOT use. I have experienced people who think that their status elevates them so high above me that they try not to talk to me, as if speaking with a worker will somehow drag them down. Now, I bet that this lady did not feel this way. But, by not using my name, it felt like I was less human; a less person than she.
Earlier that Week
Contrast this feeling with a story from earlier in the week. I was picking up my daughter from daycare, when another parent told her child to, “Stand to the side, and let Mr. Weimann through.” At first, I was surprised that she knew who I was. And then, I thought it classy that she used my cognomen. It made me feel special; important.
A person’s name is precious to him (Schultz, 2017). Dale Carnegie famously suggested a person’s name is the sweetest sound to him. The very first word that anyone types on a keyboard is his name. The first thing we learn to write is our name. It is our label. It’s who we are. There is an art to using other people’s names in conversation. It attracts the listener’s attention (Russell, 2014).
Luke Davis (2017) points out plot lines containing a search for characters’ names in “The Power of Using Someone’s Name”. A name in fantasy stories is sometimes magical. When the miller’s daughter learns Rumplestiltskin’s name, she saves her first born’s fate. Davis suggests that people give permission when they offer their name. They are communicating how you may address them. I remember a few years ago, an adult visited the classroom. He wore a nametag that showed both his first and last name. A kid read it and pronounced the adult’s first name. This adult could have handled this better. He said, “It is Mr. __ to you” to the student. He hadn’t given that student permission to use his first name.
I love classics. Some have been rewritten, made into movies, talked about so often that reading the original work is like looking at a primary source. There are times I feel like an archaeologist dusting off the first few words a master wordsmith penned. This is the feeling every fall when I get out “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving.
With sentences longer than the paragraphs my third graders write, this text presents descriptive writing that transforms the 21st century classroom into a one-room schoolhouse in a comfortably lazy, quiet, rural town. Incidentally, Sleepy Hollow is an actual town. If you cross the Tappan Zee Bridge, a word Irving includes in his text, you will see signs for it.
Remember my mentioning that I listen to texts? I have heard “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” on audio several times. When you listen to the story, you don’t have the ability to look up the words that you don’t know. You just use context clues or allow the meaning to escape, and move on with the plot. The robust vocabulary is part of the allure of the classic. The enchantment of Irving’s learned lexicon is lost, however, when I read the text to/with my third graders. Rather than bump down a bubbling brook, we get caught with confusion at every turn.
As it turns out, I have never gotten all the way through the classic with my students. I begin reading it close to the start of the year, looking toward Halloween. Everyone has heard the story. Many students tell me they have seen “the” movie. (There are several.) None have ever heard a sentence of the original classic. Even though it takes weeks to get through the first chapter, I find it fun and beneficial for students to experience. We eventually peruse the rewrites and end up comparing/contrasting them with what we have witnessed of the original.
How Does Sleepy Hollow Fit?
What on earth does “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” have to do with the story that began this blog? When we are first introduced to the main character of Irving’s tale, there is a sentence that I like to present to my students as a riddle: “The cognomen of Crane was not inapplicable to his person.” In addition to the vocabulary word, cognomen, the double-negative throws 8 & 9 year olds for a loop. We had already learned Ichabod Crane’s name, so we could use context clues to figure out that cognomen meant last or surname. The double-negative is harder to explain.
Cognomen is one of the vocabulary words that my brain glossed over when listening to the book on audio. Because it didn’t affect the plot of the story, I didn’t worry myself about it. When reading the text with students, however, it became a curiosity. We looked it up in a collegiate dictionary. (Our elementary dictionaries couldn’t handle it. This makes third graders feel awesome!) In addition to surname, cognomen also means alias or nickname. So, Irving could be saying that he is adorning this character with this name because he wants you to picture him with a beak of a nose. Ichabod’s creator/father, the man bestowing him a surname, Washington Irving, is making this surname a nickname, a cognomen. Of course, I don’t get into all of this with my third graders. We are simply happy to learn the term, surname.
Cognomens Are Classy
Nowadays, we are not reading about Sleepy Hollow. We are looking at manners from a book about being polite. This happens everyday after recess and before math. Last week, one of our lessons was to use Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. along with the last name (cognomen) when speaking with adults, or find out how the adult would like to be addressed.
As always, we had plenty of discussion, full of stories. I told the students about a neighbor, when I was a kid. He was elderly, and his family did not live close. He loved company, and we would visit him regularly. Rather than calling him Mr. Vinton, he insisted we say “Grampa Vinton”. He turned out to be one of my best friends, growing up. Even though I visited him nearly everyday and we shot rubber bands at each other in his breezeway, I always called him Grampa Vinton. Placing the respectful title before the cognomen helped me remember this was not another kid.
When I was growing up, I had friends who referred to adults as ma’am and sir. This seemed respectful, but never felt quite right to me. Looking back, I now know why. Sir and ma’am denotes mastery. The kid was suggesting servitude. This is not the same as respect.
In my classroom I use kids’ last names all of the time. I do this because it is weird and to help me learn/remember their last names, but I have noticed an interesting byproduct: Kids love it. You should see them light up when I call them Mr. Smith. Their faces look like they just won the lottery. Being called the same thing as your mom or dad is winning a lottery of respect. I place the kid on the same title plane as myself. Why don’t they refer to me as Matt? That would be unheard of, but why? By using their last name, I elevate them to the same status.
When the lady refused to use my cognomen or even my first name, yesterday, I was left with a feeling opposite my students’ when I use their last name.
Black History Month: Race
I have one more disclaimer: The text that I was listening to when the housesitter began talking to me was “The Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” by James W. Loewen. I’m sure you guessed it from the title, but this is one of those truly eye-opening books. I was just listening to Chapter 5, “Gone With the Wind: The Invisibility of Racism in American History Textbooks,” when I heard, “Excuse me.”
Loewen’s text taught me that there are subtle ways that opinions about race are woven throughout most history textbooks. The concepts are thin, and the weave is tight. You don’t even notice it, but there is a thread of attitude here, and a fragment of thought there. Many times, it is what the textbooks do NOT include. They never tell about the laws that demanded black people not look white people in the eye. There were many laws like this that trained race relation deterioration during “equalization” after emancipation that I had never heard.
I am not about to march into my third grade classroom and dump all of this information onto my students. It has, however, caused me to think about omission as a bad thing. Although it might feel awkward to bring up race, NOT doing so could be damaging. Perhaps, it is like addressing someone without using his name.
Irving, Washington, 1783-1859. (1963). Rip Van Winkle, and The legend of Sleepy Hollow. New York :Macmillan,
Loewen, James W. (1996). Lies my teacher told me : everything your American history textbook got wrong. New York :Simon & Schuster,