In so many ways, our names tell the stories of who we are. Growing up with the name Albiona, did not make me feel like one of the other kids at school. Where I grew up, most of the girls had names like Jennifer, Kimberly and Melissa. It was not like it is today — the more unique your name is, the cooler you are. Growing up, if you had a different name, it was just plain old weird. Every time I introduced myself, I had a myriad of responses. Here is one of my favorites, and unfortunately the most common:
Me: Hi, my name is Albiona.
Other Person: Wait, what’s your name?
Other Person: Ok say that slower for me
Other Person: Do you have a nick name?
Other Person: You’re going to have to forgive me, I’ll never be able to remember that.
This is just one of many interesting responses. In all fairness, that’s not always what happens. I have been told by many, that’s a beautiful name. The issue for me was not how others perceived my name, but that it took until adulthood — my 30’s — to appreciate my name. Mostly, because of the exchanges I described earlier. This was a constant struggle in my life. There were days when I would feel infuriated and other days when I would give up and go with a nickname or an alias — it was the simplest solution. This was the case for me as a child and it continues today.
When I was in the first grade, my teacher asked me to come up with a nickname because my name was too hard, and no one could remember how to say it. She said, what if we call you Abby? That’s pretty close to your name. Being 6 years old, I decided to go with it. In fact, I was delighted!
If I could be Abby, I would just blend in with the others. What a relief!
Every time there’s a substitute teacher, I won’t have to endure the agony of her calling attendance, butchering my name, the entire class laughing, me correcting her and repeating that sequence throughout the school year. Abby sounded perfect! After a few days of going by Abby, I brought my schoolwork home to show my parents.
Here’s how the conversation with my mom went:
Mom: Oh no, you emptied the wrong mailbox. You have someone else’s work.
Me: No it’s mine.
Mom: No it’s not, it says Abby.
Me: I’m Abby.
Me: Yeah, my teacher says it’s too hard to say my name, so she asked if she can call me Abby. It’s close to my name.
My mom closed her eyes, took a deep breath and said, I’m going to take you to school tomorrow and walk you into class. I want to say hello to your teacher. The next day my mom walked me in the classroom and politely waved my teacher over. They had a brief conversation, she smiled and left. Needless to say, my teacher, nor my classmates never called me Abby again. It’s a lovely name, it’s just not my name.
You’re probably thinking, things were so different back then. Not so. I am still frequently asked if I can come up with a nickname or told, I’ll never remember how to say that.
When I first began teaching preschool, I was young and wide eyed, excited to have my own classroom. On my first day, I introduced myself to all the parents. One parent raised her hand and asked, what are the kids supposed to call you? I said, Albiona (in many early childhood classrooms children will often use the first name rather than the last). She responded and said, they won’t be able to say that.
At this point I was no longer 6, 10 or 15. I was beginning to wear my name well. This was my response:
Actually, I think they’ll be just fine. I am going to bet big on your kids, and I think they can say a 4-syllable word. And I think they’ll remember it. Does anyone else have any other questions?
I went on to teach for 12 years, and every single child called me Miss Albiona or Albiona (I never cared if they dropped the Miss. One of my greatest mentors told me don’t ever get caught up with titles. Kids don’t care and neither should you. Show up and be present, that’s your job.). The point is kids don’t see things as different or weird. It just is. That was my name and they were happy to say it.
One of my greatest lessons came when I taught a special group of 4-year olds. A dentist came to visit our classroom to talk about dental hygiene. The kids were so excited for a visitor to come and talk to us. We got ourselves ready, shook out our wiggles and sat in a circle ready to take in the importance of brushing and flossing our teeth. The dentist, whom I had just met, began her presentation and she completely butchered my name. I truly understood. I know it’s not the easiest name and she just met me. But the kids were not having it.
Dentist: I’m so happy to be here and thank you Applonia for having me here in your classroom.
I thanked the dentist for coming and completely glided over the mispronunciation — something I’ve done for most of my life. I felt bad to make the other person feel bad about mispronouncing my name. I felt pressured to make sure she didn’t feel uncomfortable, after all I was the one with the hard name. This was what I had been conditioned to think. I unconsciously subscribed to the idea that it’s my fault for having a hard name so I shouldn’t say anything. I don’t want to bring more attention to an already uncomfortable moment.
As I looked at the children, their faces shifted. Scrunched up noses, wide open mouths, glances ping ponging back and forth between me and their peers. I looked at them and smiled, and I knew what their little eyes were telling me: Say something! I couldn’t. I stood there frozen.
The dentist begins and says my name incorrectly again. Immediately, one of the kids shouts, “You’re saying our teacher’s name wrong!” Another one looked at her and said, “You need to learn how to say her name right, it’s like this L-B-ona.”
They did what I had always struggled to do. And, they did it with ease.
The dentist was receptive. She apologized, not just to me but to the kids, because she saw they were concerned.
I understand when people mispronounce my name. I get it! This was not the lesson the children taught me that day. They showed me it’s OK to embrace my name. Years of being asked and told: come up with a nickname, or I’ll never remember that have stopped me from correcting others or broaching the topic. Now, when people mispronounce my name, I kindly say, oh you’re close, let me say it again.
The main take away from my message is this: Don’t ask someone to adjust, change, reduce or alter anything about themselves to make life easier for you. My name is a part of who I am. Asking me to change it, is the same as asking me to change my eye color. It tells the story of my Albanian ethnicity, which gives me a sense of pride. I am the daughter of immigrant parents who chose to give their children Albanian names to express our culture in a new country. My name epitomizes so much of who I am.
When you ask people to adjust or assimilate it says more about you than the thing — in my case my name — you’re asking them to change. As I have always told my children: listen, learn, embrace and love. Kindness will always win.