Names

  • Activity Being Procrastinated: laundry
  • Music In My Head: Green Eyes – Kate Wolf
  • Tea: blueberry-lemon
  • Books Being Read: The Passion – Jeanette Winterson

There are teenagers in my house again. A lot of girls. They’re giggling. This time, it’s something about a thong. I won’t ask. Giggling is alright: it’s not violent or self-destructive. However, I’m apparently too old to be in the same room as the giggling, so have been shooed off to my bedroom with the cat and a cup of tea.

Life sucks and then you die.

***

Writers seem to be night owls; my earliest Thursday night writing group gets me home at 10:15 p.m. This is fine when you have a job that begins at 9 a.m., but my ESL classes to China start at 5 a.m. – sometimes I’m not terribly awake on Friday mornings, and I have to fake it a little until the caffeine kicks in. I have several faking it options, one of which is an ESL question website so the kids can choose a question and make someone else answer it. It gets them talking. This week, we used a section which asked the question, “Talk about three names you go by”.

At first, most of the kids didn’t get it. “My name is ______,” they’d repeat in their robotic Chinese accents. Once they got the hang of it – Chinese names, English names, nicknames – they had a good time. Most of them have several nicknames, and some of them were even brave enough to admit to the name their parents use for them: little rabbit, sheep-sheep (nothing worse than the vile sweetie or pumpkin that get used in North America). Everyone snickered appreciatively. In the more advanced classes we had a discussion about the nicknames you like and the nicknames you wish were yours. A lot of the kids wanted to be called some name from Harry Potter or a TV cartoon. I had to point out that it wouldn’t be a good thing to be called Prongs when you got older, but I didn’t explain why.

I was thinking about my own names (on the bus ride to see students, I usually work on my laptop, but it’s difficult to do when everyone’s bundled in coats and sweaters and scarves and squished into the seats, so until the outerwear gets a little thinner, I just sit and think). I have three names:

Sheila Marie: the names of my eldest maternal aunt and my maternal grandmother, respectively, but apparently I wasn’t really “named after” them; the names were just names my parents liked. Whatever. I never argued about Marie because a) my grandmother was an absolute goddess and nothing could ever be wrong with her, not even her sickly feminine name and b) it was a name only my mother used on me. I remember despising the name Sheila for many, many years, though; if my parents could only have used a decent spelling: Shelagh or Sile? Once I realised I could have been saddled with worse names, though, I became quite happy with my name. Unless, of course, my mother is spitting out both names at me, in which case I wish I’d been named something a little more difficult to say. I’d like to see what she’d do with Hortensia Euphenia Alfreda Marguerite.
The aunt after whom I was not named is really cool; I have no problem not being named after her. I hope to be more like her as I get older.
I like Sheila because there’s not a lot you can do to mess it up… other than call me Shirley.
My children call me Sheila, as do most of my students. It’s my true name.

Slick: my real nickname – the kind of nickname where I won’t be able to tell if you called me Sheila or Slick. Acquired the day I’d just stepped out of the shower and was combing my wet hair back from my face. One of my sisters walked by and said, “Slick!” It stuck. I think it stuck because it was so completely inappropriate. In any case, it was handy when the aunt after whom I was not named came to visit.
There are some horrific things that have happened to my nickname over the years: some spelling issues (Slyke, Slyk) and some diminutives (Slickie, Slickums, Slickiedoodles). While I don’t object all that much to the creative spelling, I’m not so fond of some of the diminutives.

Miss: my professional name. Much as I encourage it, some of my more traditional students just can’t wrap their minds around Sheila; there’s no chance they can wrap their tongues around van den Heuvel-Collins. For the first few months, it sounds formal and weird (“Yes, Miss”; “No, Miss”) but eventually the kids get a little more relaxed around me, and they use it just like a name: “Miss, I’m gonna be late again.”; “Aww, Miss, are you kidding? That much homework?”; “Miss, this sucks.”; “No, Miss, you just don’t understand.” I don’t mind it when Miss starts to sound more like Slick.

I really like names. I like saying them. I like choosing a name for a character I’m writing. Deciding on names for my children felt like even more of a privilege than birthing them. Perhaps because I’m better with words than with people, I feel more comfortable when I know someone’s name. People who live in my village – the ones I see all the time – are either given a temporary name or stalked until I find out their real name. I don’t need to know anything else about them, just their name.

Ironically, I’ve been reading The Lightning Thief with some of my students, and the book puts a lot of emphasis on names. They talk about the power of names, about how they define people and summon their energy. I like that. Names are really powerful; Shakespeare can keep on with his sweet-smelling rose theory, but I’m not referring to it as anything other than “rose” because that would risk incurring the wrath of every rose that ever existed. What if they were proud to be named after their maternal ancestors? Where angels fear to tread, dude….

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