“Do you have an English name,” I asked the new student. He was a cute little dude, maybe seven years old. I hoped he already had an English name, because I suck at naming the new kids. Luckily, he did.
“My name is Cooper,” he said. He seemed excited to meet me.
“Cooper,” I repeated. “Excellent. I like that name a lot.”
Part Two – I, Jackass
Two days later, Cooper came up to me before class. He was concerned about something I had written on the board. During out English game in class, I wrote all the students’ names on the board and kept score. Although he didn’t say anything at the time, Cooper was sad.
“Teacher,” he said, “my name is with K.”
“You wrote wrong on board.”
“What do you mean? That’s how you spell it. C-o-o-p-e-r. Cooper.”
He said that was wrong. He took a marker and wrote the correct version on the board.
“Um, no buddy,” I said, firmly. “I’ve never seen it spelled like that. I think maybe your teacher made a mistake. We’re gonna spell it with a C and two O’s from now on.”
“No teacher!” he said, panicked. “It is with K! K-u-p-e-r!”
In my head, I wondered who taught him that. It was likely a Korean English teacher who couldn’t really speak English. Who else would spell Cooper that way? Kuper? Like Super. For the next week or so, this turned into a major bone of contention. I wanted him to spell the name properly, and he, with every ounce of his tiny body, was dead set on spelling it his way.
“No!” he’d shout when I wrote Cooper on the board. “K! K! K!”
“Listen,” I said, “that’s a racist organization and you shouldn’t support them. Now look, this is the right way to spell it, Cooper. I like your name…I just think you should spell it right.”
He covered his face with his hands, devastated. It was like his entire world had gone up in smoke. Like the moment you realize there is no Santa Claus, or that the Tooth Fairy is your father, or that Milli Vanilli lip sank “Blame it on the Rain.” It was one of those moments. Disillusionment.
It wasn’t brought on by the new spelling of his name, though, but instead by the realization that this teacher was not, under any circumstances, going to change it back.
Part Three – Jackass Epiphany
The day before Thanksgiving, I wrote a silly blog post about my family. In it, there was an innocuous line of dialogue where my father calls me “Billy.” My father always called me Billy. The strange tension with Cooper made me reflect on that a bit, and I thought back.
When I was a little kid – Cooper’s age – I liked being called Billy. It was a fun name, I thought. Then something happened. Around middle school time, suddenly the kids at school began teasing me over it. It started with Larry Miller. My mother didn’t like Larry because she said he had a dirty neck (good reason not to like someone, really). I thought Larry was a cool person, and I considered him my friend. That’s why I was surprised when Larry started doing a mean impersonation of me for the class.
“Hi!” he said in kind of a weird, lispy voice. “I’m Billy Panara!”
I wondered why Larry was making fun of me. What the hell did I do? Soon a lot of kids at school were coming up to me and saying “Hi Billy!” and laughing. The joke became that I was still a little kid; that while they were maturing, I was stuck in a state of arrested development.
“Billy! Are you gonna play with Mommy and Daddy? Have you been a good boy, Billy?”
I hated it. My solution was simple – I’d drop the ‘y.’ That, I figured, would solve the problem entirely. Want proof that I’m not a kid anymore? Check out my name! Bill! Man, that would say it all. It was easy to make fun of Billy…but Bill would be a whole different story. Bill’s a stand up guy, the type of buddy you shoot the shit with. So that was settled. Billy was gone, and now I was Bill.
My father, though, was not having it. I told the old man that I was Bill now, and he just sort of shrugged and said ‘no.’ That wasn’t happening, and for the next twenty years, he would insist on calling me Billy. At school I’d walk down the hallway, having kids shout out “Billy, did Daddy help you dress today?!” or something like that, and I’d hang my head. The real hurt came back at home, though, with my father.
“I’m Bill now,” I told him. “I won’t respond to Billy.”
“Stop it Billy,” he said. “You’re being ridiculous.”
I would sit in my bedroom and think, “Shit, the kids at school are right. I AM still a baby.” Then I would take my mind off things by playing with my Ninja Turtle action figures.
Looking back on it, the whole thing seems silly. At the time, though, nothing made me feel smaller than when my dad called me Billy. I hadn’t really thought about it until I wrote that blog post, and then my mind went to Cooper.
Part Four – Post Jackass
“Hey Cooper,” I said, right before I wrote his name on the board for our class game. “How do you spell your name again?”
The kid stuck to his guns. “K-u-p-e-r.”
“Yup,” I said. “That’s right.” I wrote his name like that on the board, and he was happy. The battle over the spelling of his name was finished. He had won.
In the big picture, kids don’t have control over a whole lot. They’re told what to do, when to go to bed, what they will eat, and what things they can’t break. Really, their names might be the only thing that is fully theirs; that they have ownership of. That shouldn’t be taken away. It’s important.
Now if I could just get the kid to stop writing ‘kat,’ ‘kar,’ and ‘korn on the kob,’ life would be golden.