“There is a new student in 6-Fly class,” Leah, my boss at school, told me. “He is very shy. He doesn’t have an English name. You can give him one today. Give him whatever name you want. You will be like God.”
“Actually, in the states our parents name us,” I said, being a smart-ass. “Not God.”
“Ok, you will be like his father. Tell me his new name after school today.”
This had actually happened before to me in Korea, and I didn’t really enjoy it. Back in 2009 I worked at a summer camp for kids, and a good number of boys didn’t have English names. I was asked to name them and thought that sounded fun. Not putting much thought into it, I went with whatever names popped into my head.
“You in the front, from now on you’re Tony. And you over there…you can be Vinny. And you…you’re…um…you can be Angelo.”
Without realizing it, I had given them all bad Italian names, and subsequently had a class of little Korean goombas for the rest of camp. This time, I wanted the child to have an English name he could really connect with. On Friday afternoon, when 6-Fly class – complete with their newest addition – came lazily walking in, I decided to take a more democratic approach.
The new student was a short boy wearing glasses and a baseball cap. “First thing,” I said, “we have to come up with a name for you. Is there an English name that you really like?”
He shook his head ‘no.’
“That’s fine,” I said. “Think for a moment. Is there an actor or anything who you think is cool? You can take that name.”
“No teacher,” the nameless boy said. “You pick.”
“Well here’s what we’ll do,” I told the class. “Everybody is going to get a piece of paper. Right down five English names. Then I’ll write all the names on the board, and the new student can pick the one he likes best. If you wrote down the name he picks, I’ll give you a piece of candy.”
The class seemed to like this idea. One of the other students, Amy, asked me, “Teacher, can I use my dictionary?”
“Sure, Amy,” I said, passing out scrap paper. “Try to come up with the best five names you can.”
I was thinking of contests from the 1950s, like when The Flintstones had the viewers write in to name “Pebbles.” The new boy sat there and watched his classmates as they jotted down candidates for his new identity. Getting in on the act, I made my own list, with what I thought were good names for a twelve-year old boy. Brad. Rueben. Dillon. Secretly, I hoped that I myself would win the candy.
After collecting the papers, I realized that most students didn’t write real names, but instead random English words. Looking at each, I thought, “Could that be a name?” Some I kept (I allowed Rock and even Melon); most were discarded. One student, Kevin, wrote Jesus Christ on his list. I didn’t write it on the board. With the edited list available for all to view, I turned back to the new kid.
“Take a look,” I said, and then read them all. “Which one do you like best?”
“Teacher!” Kevin shouted. “Where is Jesus Christ?”
“Kevin, I’m sorry, but we can’t go around calling him Jesus Christ.”
For the first time all class, the new boy perked up. “I want that! Jesus Christ! Me!”
The whole class nodded in approval.
“No, no, no,” I said. “Look at the names on the board. Jesus Christ is not an option.”
“Why no?” Kevin asked, demanding an answer.
“Listen, I have to tell Leah Teacher the new name after school today. If I tell her his new name is Jesus Christ…I don’t think she’ll be very happy. And also, what would your mother say? Would your mother want everyone at school calling you Jesus?”
“Yes,” he said. “It is very good name.”
I contemplated allowing him to be the Hispanic Jesus – pronounced Hey-Sus. That wouldn’t do though. I would have to try and explain why the J sounds like an H. Calling him Hey-Sus would make no sense to them. They would end up just calling him Jesus Christ, sticking to their knowledge of phonics.
“Look at the list,” I said, trying to maintain order. “You have to pick one of these. How about Dillon?”
He still couldn’t pick, so I had each of the students vote for their favorite. The winner turned out to be one of the words-that-could-also-be-a-name: Freedom.
“Great,” I said. “Your name is now Freedom. There was a very popular singer once named Freedom Williams. He was big in the 90s.”
“Who, Teacher?” the newly anointed Freedom asked, curious. I didn’t feel I had much of a choice, so I cued up C & C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat” video on YouTube.
“EVERYBODY DANCE NOW!” the skinny girl shouted/lip-sang while the students stared at it like they were watching a home video from Mars.
I looked at the clock. Over half of our class time had gone by. I wondered if I really should be allowed to lead a group of kids. I also wondered if parents feel a sense of regret, sort of akin to buyer’s remorse, once they’ve named their child. Maybe Mary even felt that way. Maybe she sat there in the manger, holding her divine little small fry, and thought, “I should’ve named him Vinny.”