Turns out, sometimes, everything. Let me explain.
Many years ago, I chaperoned a non-school-sponsored trip to Spain. It was July, and my colleague and I had agreed to take twelve recent graduates on a trip that they, and we, would forever remember. We were a tight-knit group: 12 kids, 2 of their former teachers, 1 beautiful country. These students were primed to learn everything more they could about Spain, and as it turned out, Scott and I ended up learning way more about kids. With such a small group, and with the understanding that as educators, we would require the students to adhere to school rules despite their status as alums, we bonded in a way that teachers and students rarely get to experience. We spent our days touring and visiting cities - Madrid, Toledo, Granada, Cordoba, Malaga, and Sevilla - and our evenings chatting about our lives, the kids' futures, pretty much everything. We would have our dinner, perhaps catch a Flamenco show or walk through the cobbled street of a city, then return to our hotel and all hunker down in one of the shared hotel rooms where the kids talked about their hopes, their fears, their regrets, their dreams.
While both of us chaperones were ultra-organized even in the most relaxed of settings, I knew a lot of New Game-y, Girl Scout-y, team build-y kinds of exercises designed to bring people closer together. Whenever there was a lull in conversation, I turned to my mental reserve of icebreakers and get-to-know-you activities. One night, after a long day and nearing the end of the trip, we went round and round the group, finishing sentences such as, "I wish my parents knew..." and "One thing I wish I'd done in high school is..." and "My favorite school lunch was...." We oohed and aahed at our answers, nodded knowingly, and laughed uproariously, until what would become the last round of sentence completions.
"The thing that I will remember most about high school is..." elicited responses of sweet nostalgia, moments of achievement, and for one courageous student, an opportunity to share something that had negatively altered her high school experience and hurt her on a very deep and personal level. She sobbed as she began her turn, barely audible and barely able to complete the sentence. "The thing that I will remember most about high school is that people never pronounced my name correctly." Turns out, it wasn't "everyone" that goofed up her name; she clarified when and where it happened and which adults never bothered to learn the correct pronunciation. Through tears, she explained that logically, she knew that there were bigger, much bigger, way bigger hurts that high schoolers suffer, but for her, the pain over this issue was about the simplicity of the fix: she often corrected people when they mispronounced her name, but they never seemed to care enough to remember for the next time. Daily roll calls, periodic announcements over the loud speakers, and especially, the Academic Awards banquet all proved extraordinarily difficult for a girl whose only wish became hearing her name pronounced properly and for whom the wish was so rarely granted.
Later, Scott and I shared privately that we were each convinced that we
were about to hear something we were not equipped to handle there, at
that moment, in a faraway country, as teachers, at all. For both of us, the first internal response was, "That's it?!?" But as our student described the message she received every time she heard her name mispronounced, and as we chaperones debriefed later, we knew we'd had a lesson in compassion and consideration. It was a lesson that stuck, a gift that I return to every time I speak a child's name, last or first or both. Our names are who we are first and all we have in the end. They matter. We owe it to all our students to make sure we get theirs right.