Thursday, December 22, 2011

Name Post: Student Voices

During the last two weeks I’ve been in and out of the Rabat American School speaking to students (8th grade-12th grade) about my fellowship, my research, and their own opinions on some of the fundamental questions I’m exploring. RAS is located in Rabat’s Agdal neighborhood and offers an American-based education for grades kindergarten through twelfth. About 35% of the students are Moroccan and the other 65% are from a huge variety of international backgrounds.

Over the past five weeks in Rabat, I’ve become friends with a few teachers at the school and we agreed that my project would be a good fit in a lot of their classes. I spoke with one 8th grade Moroccan Studies class, two 10th grade English classes, two Theory of Knowledge classes (one 11th grade, one 12th grade), and one 12th grade Political Science class. Feeling far too young for my “guest speaker” title, but also far too old to be eating on a tray in the high school cafeteria, I tried to strike a balance of presenting information to them through informal conversation.

I set up a PowerPoint about my project and we debated a lot of questions that arose from it. Questions like, “Is it ethical for the government to restrict what people can name their children? Is the power to give a name a human right?” and “How central is a name to a person’s identity? (How do names shape who we are?” We also attempted to answer “What assumptions do we make about people based on their names?” and “How are names changing in 2011? What influence does globalization have on names?”

Being the English nerd I am, I pulled up a couple of competing literary passages about names to give them a chance to see where they fall on the spectrum of how important names are to our identities… in other words, are you more of a Juliet or an Anne?

O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.

--Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare.

In contrast to:

"Unromantic fiddlesticks!" said the unsympathetic Marilla.
"Anne is a real good plain sensible name. You've no need to
be ashamed of it."

"Oh, I'm not ashamed of it," explained Anne, "only I like
Cordelia better. I've always imagined that my name was
Cordelia--at least, I always have of late years. When I was
young I used to imagine it was Geraldine, but I like
Cordelia better now. But if you call me Anne please call me
Anne spelled with an E."

"What difference does it make how it's spelled?" asked Marilla
with another rusty smile as she picked up the teapot.

"Oh, it makes SUCH a difference. It LOOKS so much nicer.
When you hear a name pronounced can't you always see it in
your mind, just as if it was printed out? I can; and A-n-n
looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished.
If you'll only call me Anne spelled with an E I shall try to
reconcile myself to not being called Cordelia.

-Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery

Let’s admit it, I side way more with Anne on this one, but it was so interesting to hear students’ opinions on this. Several classes wrote responses to the question “How central is your name to your identity?” and their answers were all over the spectrum. For me, going into RAS was a great opportunity to practice how to articulate what I’m studying (and why it’s important) to others, as well as hear a variety of perspectives from Moroccan students about their own names. At a school with such an international population, I met students from Germany, Belgium, Korea, the Philippines, the USA, Italy, Spain and the UK who could fill me in on naming in a lot of different countries.

I also got to hear a lot of great stories, like one teacher at the school who converted to Islam in order to adopt a boy from Morocco years ago, but just within the last few months was able to finally give him the same last name as her, or about a girl at the school whose name means “crown of flowers” because her mother kept making these when she was pregnant with her.

Several of them gave me permission to pull quotes from their reflections, and I’ll let their insight and enthusiasm speak for itself:

“Personally at least, since I am named after Nelson Mandela, I was raised with “leftist” or “left-leaning” ideals, and Nelson Mandela, although religious, was a big advocate of those. My name defines how I act, how I am perceived. I think that if I had a different name I would only act differently because a different family would have named me, and that same family would have raised me differently—I am proud of my name and what it stands for, and I hope to honor it.”

“I personally don’t think my name says anything about me at all. First of all, my parents chose it when I was a still a little shrimp so there is no way it could reflect any aspect of my personality. Also, I’d be just as happy with Hassan or Zak or whatever other name. If we were able to choose our own names than maybe we’d see a certain part of ourselves in that name.”

“My name, Mehdi, is one that derives from the Arabs. In family life I am indirectly related to the prophet Mohammad, peace be upon Him. The meaning of my name is “the straight path.” While my name has no identity to Morocco, the country in which I’ve been living my whole life, it is a relatively common name (There are two Mehdi’s in RAS). My name thus is not a specific name of a specific tribe or sect or region in Morocco, it’s a name that can be found across the Arab world, along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. As years pass on we find that many societies are detaching from the religious sides of their family. Religion has become something of the past. Although I am a practicing Muslim, I find that the world “I don’t really care” are beginning to be uttered much more oftenly. As a result, we see many teens are getting the idea that not caring about what their choices are makes them “cool.” Identity is becoming a larger blur to many and I believe that in a matter of time people won’t carry any identity of their own. “

“Amir is a very rare name, quite like myself, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a teacher that hasn’t mentioned the originality of my case to me; sometimes with a positive connotation and sometimes with a negative one. It also translates into prince, I don’t know what aspects of a Prince I might have, I presume none, however, many have also pointed out that I’m a bit of an egomaniac, I suppose a monarch has some confidence. It could also be used to refer to someone who is quite good at something. The prince of football, the prince of literature…So this name may also signify that you will be important or simply at one period in time you will be a master in something. I think if it’s a name, like Pearl or Ketchup it could mean that your parents were open to a lot of things and not conservative. It says a lot about your parents if they name you after a movie star, after a prophet rather than a politician…it shows what they care about because they would name their kid after it.”

“I believe that names and identities have no correlation whatsoever because a name does not give insight to one’s person. The fact that our name is given to us a chosen by a parent just proves that our names and identities are not relevant. Some people may say “her name fits her face”, which is sometimes true depending on people’s past experiences and perceptions. However, this is purely physical and aesthetic, and I believe it does not really coincide with one’s identity. I think that identity has to do with personality, self-individual.”

“Although my name is used throughout the world (even if with different spellings), it says a lot about where I come from. Mariam, spelled this way, is an Arab name. I would not think of any more beautiful name, although I wish I could fit the descriptions of it. The Virgin Mary was a saint, and although I am still young, I know I am no saint. I am human. My name means a lot to me because it says a lot about where I come from. It is also because it is the only female name that has a whole verse about it in the Quran. Other than that, my name has no reflection over my personality, which is I consider the strongest factor of my identity. The name indicates that I am Arab, so it says a lot about my culture, my background and the environment I come from. Because a name reflects where you come from and what social background you come from, people automatically make assumptions about you. These assumptions are due to generalizations or other people they know who bear the same name. If a name is really unique, we tend to identify it with a single person we know. Names say a lot about you that each person interprets differently. Some people change their names to be accepted, or to have more chances.”

Can you see how thrilled I was to have such thoughtful and interesting students to share my enthusiasm for this topic with? Sometimes this can feel like such a solo endeavor, and it’s always nice to find people to share my experiences with along the way. I was also really touched by how concerned these students were (particularly the 8th graders) for my well being as I go on this journey…a lot of them were absolutely shocked I don’t have anyone to meet me in each place (or anyone to be “monitoring” me, as one 8th-grader put it).

I gave the students the link to my blog (with the forewarning that some entries are solely gratuitous updates of daily/personal life). Based on the number of hits from Morocco this week, I think some of them have been checking it out. To the RAS students who may be reading this: a sincere THANK YOU! It’s been such a pleasure getting to know you and hearing your stories.

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