Last week, the principal of the school I work at was walking through the building with a couple of big-wig-higher-up-type gentlemen. Our school is housed in an old mansion from the early 1900’s, so people often take tours to learn about its rich and fascinating history. Because my group therapy room/office is located on the first floor, I’ve become accustomed to tuning out visitors to be able to focus on my own work.
Since these two men were in the room adjacent to mine, they peeked in to get a glimpse of my room — which happens to be the most beautiful room in the whole building (#humblebrag). It was the old sun-room, so it’s lined with windows along three of the walls. Natural light is always pouring in and it has an especially beautiful view right now as the leaves on the trees are changing colors.
“Beautiful office you have here.”
“Thank you. It’s also my group’s therapy room, which it’s perfect for.”
“That’s great! I’m Tom.”
I hesitated, knowing what was about to happen next. I would say my name, and as always, have to repeat it more than once because, surely, he will not pronounce it correctly.
“I’m Adwaa. Nice to meet you.”
“Adwaa. That is a beautiful name.”
I moved on from this semi-conversation and went back to what I was doing, but it wasn’t lost on me that my expectation was proven wrong. Then, on my long drive home, I started to think about this interaction again. He repeated my name exactly as I had said it and even complimented it. What a stark contrast from so many experiences as a kid.
Growing up, I hated my name. I went to an elementary school where all the other girls had “easy” names like Ashley, Heather, and Stephanie. I was one of only a handful of non-white kids in the entire school. And I was definitely the most ethnic — which was never more apparent than when new or substitute teachers called out names to mark attendance. I learned to accept that, “Can you say that again?” or, “I’m not saying this correctly, am I?” would be things I will hear for the rest of my life. And don’t get me started on the bullying I faced throughout elementary school — because kids can be plain old cruel sometimes.
When I got to high school, things got a lot easier. The school was so much more diverse than my elementary and junior high schools, so classmates were much more attuned to pronouncing names correctly and had more respect for the cultural significance of names like mine. But I was so accustomed to having my name pronounced incorrectly that I had already given up on correcting people, mostly teachers, when they said it wrong. That went on until nearly the end of my freshman year when, after my Honors English teacher butchered my name almost all year long, the girl who sat behind me, Abi (who was in most of my classes), got fed up and corrected him. I still remember her scolding him in front of the whole class.
“Mr. Dominiak, her name is Adwaa: A-D-W-A-A. I don’t know where you got the random “r” from that you put in there, but that’s not how you say her name,” Abi said, very sternly.
I was mortified — for him. For some reason, I felt terrible that she was putting him on blast in front of the whole class.
“I’ve been pronouncing it wrong all year? Why didn’t anyone correct me? She never said anything,” he responded.
“Actually, I told you how to say it at the beginning of the year, but it’s fine. It’s not a big deal.” I wanted to sink into my chair. No one would ever accuse me of being a shy person, but I did not want to be part of this conversation.
“It is a big deal,” Abi exclaimed. “People should pronounce your name correctly.”
From then on, Mr. Dominiak pronounced my name correctly. I still didn’t have strong convictions about the situation, though — not until I got to sophomore Chemistry class, at least.
On the first day of Chemistry, the teacher was calling out names for attendance and starting “get-to-know-you” activities. He asked students to let him know if there is another name they would prefer to go by. Some people gave him nicknames or shortened versions of their names. Then he got to me. Of course he asked if he pronounced my name correctly, to which I responded that, of course, he did not. So I corrected him. Then he asked me if I had a nickname, which I didn’t. Fast forward down the roster to the Greek girl in my class, Dionysia. I don’t think I need to tell you guys he could not pronounce it correctly. She had to repeat it several times for him and he still didn’t get it.
“Do you have a nickname?” he asked.
“No, I don’t,” she responded.
“So, you’re going to make me say all of that every time I have to call on you in class?” he rhetorically quipped back.
That comment irritates me to this day. And in the moment, it definitely pissed me off. Who does this guy think he is, deciding that a name should be shortened just to make his life easier? And it was in that very moment that I understood how Abi felt and why she stood up for me.
The number of times I’ve had to answer the question, “Do you have a nickname?” while sitting next to the Sarahs and Jennys and Allisons is beyond bothersome, especially after it goes on for years on end. And then when the answer is “no,” you feel this sudden urge and obligation to apologize for not doing enough to make it easier for that person to address you. As if the names Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar just roll off the tongue! But look at that: millions of NBA fans around the world seemed to be able to figure it out just fine. So why the heck do the rest of us have to make our names more easily consumable to the people who are all too eager to spice up their lives with our hummus and falafel, but not with our names?
I eventually became an advocate for people getting their names pronounced correctly because, frankly, it is utter bullshit that people with unfamiliar or uncommon names have to lower their expectations of others’ ability and/or willingness to address them properly. It’s a sign of respect to be spoken to in a dignified manner, including and especially, having your name said the way you intend it to be.
If you have a genuine nickname that you prefer to go by, that’s great. I’m not knocking that. But if you have the typical “American name as a nickname” that half of my cousins do because it’s easier for others to pronounce, then yes, I’m knocking that, because none of us should have to change our names to appease someone else’s tongue.
On that first day of Chemistry, when I was 15, I took a stand and still refuse to settle for someone telling me they’re unable to pronounce my name the way it should be said. My conviction is so strong that a few years ago, a former coworker tried to give me a nickname just for fun, and I straight up refused.
…None of us should have to change our names to appease someone else’s tongue.
“You’ve never had a nickname? No way. You can’t go through life without ever having a nickname. From now on, we’ll call you Addy,” he told me.
“No, the hell you won’t,” I said, as I burst into laughter at his failed (but genuine) attempt to be supportive.
It was a sweet gesture, but completely unnecessary. I didn’t need, let alone want, a nickname. He tried to call me that several times and it was not happening — Mean Girls style: “Stop trying to make Addy happen, Danny. It’s not going to happen!”
Having worked with hundreds of people over the last ten years, I’ve seen firsthand that most people will absolutely put in the effort to reciprocate the expectations you set for how you would like to be addressed. When I worked in schools on the south and west sides of Chicago, I had the genuine intention to let the kids off the hook by just calling me by the first letter of my last name — and they actually got offended. To them, that meant I didn’t think they were capable of saying a name they didn’t believe was even hard to say. I didn’t make that mistake again after I realized they wanted to be as authentic with me as I was with them — which is exactly what we were trying to teach them in our program anyway.
The best way for people to learn the way you expect to be treated is to model it for them. And if you’re like me, and you work with youth, always remember how important it is to them and to their development that they know they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect in this way. So, respect yourself, your lineage, your cultural heritage, and whatever else makes you and your name unique, and people will mirror that back to you. And, frankly, to hell with what those jerks in elementary school used to say, because having a hard to pronounce name hasn’t stopped me from accomplishing any of the goals I’ve set my mind to! Since then, only a handful of people have ever mispronounced my name anyway. And, to my surprise, dozens of people love my name, its meaning, and the story behind how it came to be even more than I do!