What’s in a name?

Photo by Morgan Basham on Unsplash

It’s said that a person’s name is the greatest connection to their own identity and individuality. Some might say it is the most important word in the world to that person. I’m not really sure why I was given my name – it has no family history that I know of. To my knowledge it was just a name that appealed to my mother. But I like it – Derek is an uncomplicated name – although it has numerous variants in terms of how it is spelt. Dereck, Derrick, Derik etc. I’ve had them all on letters addressed to me – but somehow I still recognised that it is me.

It was probably the most frequently used word I heard during my pre-school years – that word meant me – it was who I was. I felt pretty good about that, particularly as I hadn’t heard of any other Derek’s to that point.

Until I got to primary school – then I became confused. It was there that I learned my name may actually be ‘Big Ears’. At least that’s how it appeared as that is how a number of kids referred to me – particularly the larger boys in the class and the classes above me. Through school I was often taunted with jibes like “hey Big Ears, where’s your mate Noddy?” Some would say it just because they thought it was fun. Others because they knew it upset me. Either way, it wasn’t pleasant.

But name calling seemed to be a part of the way it ‘worked’ at school – and you either ‘sucked it in’ and retreated in defeat, or you learned to ‘give back’, in an attempt to demonstrate that you were capable of making others feel insecure and intimidated just as much as the rest.

Upon entering secondary school I was one of those students who ‘was still developing’. Short in stature I didn’t stand a chance against those peers who had already developed pubic hair and whose voices were now sounding an octave deeper. I was easy prey again in this environment – and often found refuge in the library or on the sports field where at least my ability to run faster than most found acceptance from those who needed me in their team.

You’ll have to understand that I attended secondary school during the time when the Beatles and Rolling Stones were modelling new ways of wearing your hair – all a part of the rising ‘revolution’ of young people and a rising tide of anti-establishment sentiments. While many around me were defying school rules and beginning to let their hair grow longer (i.e. over their collar or ears!) mine remained trimmed in short back and sides, army-style according to the expectations of the ‘school rules’. So in addition to Big Ears, I learned to respond to Baldy and other similar jibes.

Being on the receiving end of this sort of behaviour from your peers is one thing, but from those in authority, the ones who are supposed to have your back, is another. In my first year at secondary school I began to learn to play the violin – largely because I’d ‘inherited’ one from a great aunt on condition I learned to play. To be honest, I was rather chuffed to try – but the weekly challenge of getting to school with the cumbersome instrument on my bike drew the attention of the Enid Blyton fan-club and attracted even more taunts.

Violin lessons were held during school hours, so you were given exemption from class to attend the 30 minute sessions. On one occasion this meant I arrived late into a science class where all of my peers were already seated and listening to the teacher – one of the ‘new breed’ who was already defying the rules and wearing his hair longer than any of us were officially allowed to. He was ‘cool’ (and knew it!). As I entered the class he looked at me in a way that made me feel uncomfortable – obviously annoyed that I’d interrupted his monologue from the front. He allowed me to sneak to my seat (back of the class, according to alphabetical order of surname) and as I sat down I must have scrapped my chair or done something equally distracting. The teacher looked at me and in a challenging tone said, “Hey Brynner (reference to Yul Brynner, infamous for his bald head), what makes you think you can come in late for my class?” At which point the rest of the class erupted in laughter leaving me shrinking into my seat, wishing I could join my violin it its case under my desk. Satisfied that his ‘joke’ had landed well, he then informed me I’d need to come to him at the end of the class to receive a detention for lateness – and proceeded on with his monologue to the class.

Looking back I guess I can be thankful that it was only big ears and a short haircut that differentiated me from others around me. The taunts I received about my name and my appearance pale into insignificance when considering the relentless attacks others receive, based on their gender, race, religious beliefs etc. I still recall a conversation with a senior colleague from when I worked as a teacher educator, a wonderful Māori gentleman who, as the eldest of his family had been named after his ancestors and so he carried his name with pride. Raised in a family where Te Reo was his first language, he was sent to a school where English was used, and Te Reo was banned. He received numerous reprimands (i.e. hand smacked with a steel ruler) whenever he was heard using Te Reo in class. Not only that, but many of his teachers struggled to pronounce his name correctly. He explained to me that one teacher, when coming to his name on the school roll and finding it ‘un-pronouncable’ declared in front of the class, “this is too hard – I’ll just call you wheelbarrow!” In a simple blow the pride my colleague had in his name and the meaning it carried with it was beaten!

If there’s one thing the experiences of my youth have taught me it’s to have at least a small degree of understanding of the impact these things have. They hurt. They leave you feeling powerless and alone. And if sustained over a long period of time, will eventually shape who you are, how you see yourself, your self-belief and self-confidence – and even your identity.

But if I’m honest, I can’t say in truth that I am completely innocent of such behaviour. I am not aware of anything in particular, but given the culture I grew up in at school, I can only imagine there’d have been times where I will have resorted to ‘dishing out’ the same sort of jibes. I feel deeply ashamed if that’s the case.

That’s another thing I realise now, with the benefit of hindsight, that while the environment we’re in creates such cultures of behaviour, it takes courage, self-belief and self-confidence to rise above that. But it takes more than that too – it takes being accepted, supported and made to feel valued by friends, peers, family… to be affirmed by those around us.

This week was anti-bullying week in NZ. I wrote this blog post simply to highlight that pretty much every one of us has a story to tell of being on the receiving end of such behaviour, and of the devastating impact it had on our sense of self. For many of us this was for a moment, a passing thing and we’ve been fortunate to be able to rise above it all with the help of friends, family etc. But for too many others the attacks are relentless and there is no ‘escape’ through friends and family.

The simple message is, any form of bullying is not OK. Including name calling.

One thought on “What’s in a name?

  1. Ka mau te wehi, e hoa. There is much in your story that i could repeat in my own. It drives me at a deep and profound level in my daily work.
    Kia tau te mauri

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