Know Me By My Name, Or Else!

It is completely disgusting to witness adults working with adolescents but have yet to learn their names. To not make an attempt to pronounce, remember, and then consistently use a teenager’s name invites a high level of disdain. I get really defensive.  Adults serve as role models and beacons of social cues yet consistently waste time criticizing students’ aptitude levels and behavior shortcomings, while simultaneously not taking time to learn students’ names. That’s identity theft! Even more so, I am highly disturbed by students’ tacit agreement to this lack of acknowledgement of their selves.

Where did this pipeline of ignorance begin? Certainly not at birth! In a state full of much diversity, especially within New York City, several cultures uphold naming ceremonies. “A naming ceremony is the event at which an infant, a youth, or an adult is given a name or names. The timing can vary from mere days after birth to several months or many years afterwards. Some of these ceremonies have religious or cultural significance.” The presence of specific family and community members, selection of a proper day, significant symbols, and artifacts are inscribed in this HIGHLY regarded act of naming.

Therefore, we are culturally and innately prepared to support adolescents’ recognition of their most authentic selves.

Here are my assumptions about what adults working on behalf of students and the parents of adolescents desire:

  • Adults and Parents want adolescents to become contributing members of society.
  • Adults and Parents want to form mutually respecting relationships with adolescents.
  • Adults and Parents want adolescents to mimic social expectations.
  • Adults and Parents want to appropriately refer to adolescents in order to get their attention, relay information, resolve a conflict, or praise. (Side note: Nicknames are adorable. Nicknames follow a bonding that has occurred over time. It signifies that a mutually respectful relationship has transpired as well.

The book  Psychology of Personalization: Why We Crave Customized Experiences quotes Dale Carnegie’s famous How to Win Friends and Influence People: “Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Carnegie’s point is that learning names and using them is fundamental to students’ way of thinking about themselves and, most importantly, the world around them. Erik Devaney writes,  “he was so keen on this notion, in fact, that he came up with his own system for remembering names effectively.”

If we don’t refer to an adolescent by name, he or she might begin to:

  • Develop a lack of empathy
  • Not understand boundaries and social expectations
  • Embrace confusion about his/her identity
  • Uphold irresponsibility as he/she is never truly acknowledged
  • Increase chances of following when he/she should lead others

I saw the beginnings of these possibilities today during a restorative justice circle. I referred to a student that I’m meeting again for the second time by the wrong name.

“Michael, please pick up your notebook,” I stated.

He replied, “My name is not Michael.”

“I wish to know your name. I apologize for my mishap. Please tell me your name,” I said.

His reply, “My name is not Michael.”

This exchange is the norm in some New York schools. I referred to a student by a name. A wrong name. I went to correct my mistake and did not make a genuine connection. Yes, “Michael” was compliant. He picked up the notebook. “Michael” never provided his name. I saw his name because I watched what name he recorded on the activities for the day on paper. I did not learn his name because he did not vocalize his name. “Michael” has become all too comfortable with a lack of recognition. His refusal to provide the right name is a reminder for me and for others that “children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them” as James A. Baldwin said so well.

Brain Activation When Hearing One’s Own and Others’ Names concludes that “when people hear their own first name (vs. hearing other first names), there is a unique reaction in the brain.” Therefore, I’ve provided strategies that school personnel and adults working with adolescents must use to develop a relationship with students and build credibility with parents too.


  1. The name game: An opportunity for an adolescent to adopt an adjective that describes their personality. It is used before their name. For example, “Transparent Thomas,” “Truthful Thomas,” or my favorite, “Kind Kalyca.”
  2. At home, your son/daughter may decorate a favorite space in the home to symbolize their authentic self as represented by their name. Invite a conversation about the origins of your son/daughter’s name.
  3. Incorporate a “Naming Ceremony” in your class beginning with Where We Came From. “Collect baby pictures from each participant.  Project one baby picture at the start of class, have your students guess who it is, and then have the featured student share something about their childhood.” I add that the shared information is presented to the class using his/her name as an acronym.
  4. At home, combine all photos in a unique album or update a family album to be shared at holiday gatherings, birthday celebrations, weddings, family reunions, etc.

Know me by my name, or else! Otherwise your failure to acknowledge students’ true selves will have irreversible effects. Imagine this very same adolescent growing up with the conviction that he is nameless, literally and spiritually. But, no longer! This student YOU have nurtured is now know by:


(fill in the blank)

I dare you!


What do you think?

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