Saturday, January 21, 2012

Name Post: Discovering Kevinismus

While in Morocco, a friend who's a teacher there told me there’s an old joke that teachers are the people who have the hardest time naming their kids because by the time they’ve gotten around to having their own, there is no name left that doesn’t have some kind of negative connotation. This is one of the many reasons I really love talking to teachers about names. They’ve often seen a wide variety of names, and also get a new sample of students every year, making them the perfect people to notice how trends are changing. In the past week I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Birgit, a kindergarten teacher whose family has lived in Wannewitz for decades. I’ve been really interested in hearing her stories about living in the GDR and I finally got to sit her down the other evening to talk to her about names.

Birgit has four kids of her own: Caroline, Tobias, Claudia and Andreas (the last two are twins). While Birgit may have avoided naming her own child after students whose names held a negative connotation, she did name her second child, Tobias, after a particularly sweet kindergartener she had in her class. Birgit has taught at a Montessori style kindergarten in the nearby town of Delitzsch for years. She talked to me about how she noticed names in this part of Germany seemed to go in five year cycles. Particularly interesting recent trends she noticed is a return to old fashioned German names like Fritz and Bruno and Sophia which has replaced the "typically East German" trend that's been going on since the 1980s where it seemed like every girl was Jessie or Mandy or Cindy.

She talked to me about names in the GDR and how until the wall came down in Wannewitz, there was no television. She thinks that this was a large reason why the names tended to be pretty unoriginal. She says there were many girls named Birgit and boys named Andreas and people didn’t tend to think very creatively about their options. She also told me about how it took a long time post war for for people to start traveling again. She said that all of a sudden, 20 years later, names like Lars and Sven are popping up in Germany, and largely reflect that people are taking holidays to the north again.

One of many old and beautiful office buildings in Leipzig.

To be clear, in Germany, kindergarten is the term used for what we in the United States would consider preschool or nursery school. The school at which Birgit teaches takes kids who are a few months old up to age six. I asked her what she thought the kids she worked with thought of their own names and if--having seen a large sample of five year-olds--names actually matter to them. She responded that almost all of the five year-olds she’s taught are very particular and very devoted to their names. She thinks that people disliking or wanting to change their names comes much later in life. She told me that often kids are very particular that their classmates speak and spell their names correctly, hanging onto those letters, perhaps because a name acts as their bridge from who they are at home to who they are in this new school setting. She also told me about the opposite affect, where a girl named “Annalina” was always just called “Lina” at home, but insisted on her full name being used at kindergarten.

This conversation got me thinking a lot of about names and identity shifts. Names often change in context; sometimes we use our full names, sometimes nicknames, sometimes name change with marriage and sometimes they change just because people need a fresh start. It’s interesting to me that these kindergarteners were already recognizing that names can change in context, and perhaps a name is a way of separating these aspects of identity for ourselves; maybe Annalina just didn’t feel like a Lina at school. My mom likes to tell the story that when I was in elementary school, teachers would always compliment her on how well behaved I was, a story that didn’t always line up with the obstinate, argumentative daughter she knew at home. She talked to me about this one day and I then explained to her that there was “Home Nell” and “School Nell.” (Clearly, “School Nell” was miraculously better at accepting authority). In other words, from a young age, I was creating my own names for myself depending on how I was behaving (or felt like behaving) in different contexts.

Hannah & Kemba are providing me with great filler photos of quintessential beautiful German kids. This was taken at a cafe while people-watching (and rolling around) in a Leipzig Starbucks.

I also asked Birgit about her own perspective on these kids’ names. I’m always curious how much our names shape who we are, and I wanted to know if there was any kind of correlation she’d noticed between kids’ personalities or characteristics and their names. She told me there does seem to be some kind of correlation because often kids with the same name come from families in similar social circles. One year she had three boys named Nicolas who were all remarkably alike. She also told me there have been a lot of studies done in Germany about teachers’ own biases against kids based on their names. She told me that there’s a running joke among teachers in Germany that any kid named “Florian” is bound to be a trouble maker. She also told me it’s been interesting to her because the kindergarten where she teaches is right next door to a kindergarten for kids who are developmentally delayed and there are certain names in that kindergarten that you never find in the one she teaches at, and vice versa.

And then we talked about Kevinismuss. Kevinismuss is a phenomenon I read about before I came to Germany, but it’s been surprising to me how many people are quite aware of it here. I’ve heard that the term was first coined in an Austrian newspaper article. It refers to the phenomenon of Austrians and Germans giving their kids names like Justin or Cindy or Jason or, the most popular, Kevin. For whatever reason, in Germany it is most often parents with less education who tend towards American names. By some strange correlation, there ended up being a lot of kids named Justin and Kevin in Germany who spent their first few years in homes that had different values or practices that might be found in most German schools. As a result, they tended to do worse than their peers once they got there. This is happening so frequently, however, that now there are a lot of questions about if German teachers have come to be biased against certain names. Some studies here have looked at teachers’ gradebooks and there’s been an overwhelming correspondence between a child’s name and how well they do in school; overwhelmingly, kids with American names in Germany do worse.

Another Leipzig street.

It was very interesting to me that there was such a strong correlation here that “Kevinismus” is a term known by many in Germany. I was trying to think if there is an American equivalent, but I think perhaps in the U.S., there are fewer names chosen exclusively by certain demographics. There have been a lot of studies about prejudices based on stereotypically “black names” and “white names” in the U.S. but fewer studies on names and the socio-economic status or education level of parents. Teachers must make certain assumptions about their students from just seeing their class lists at the beginning of each year, but perhaps few in the U.S. admit it, or maybe the trends are less overwhelming in one direction or another.

I talked to one German mom about “Kevinismus” recently. She chose to give her kids two old fashioned German names (Albert and Clara). She said that the Kevinismus trend and the laws for German names didn’t really affect her and her husband’s decision about the kid's names too much, but, as she puts it, “If a teacher is going to look at a gradebook and be more likely to give my kid better marks because his name is Albert…that can't hurt..."

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