What’s in a name?

One thing I’ve discovered that I like very much about these Chinese students (in addition to their great taste in eyeglass frames) is the way they speak so…properly.  In this measured and shyly polite way that I have a hard time mimicking because it requires me to concentrate too hard.  After I’d showed them pictures of my life back home and introduced myself, a few of my Junior 2s bravely approached me at the lectern.
Two girls: “Jennifer, may we ask you a question?  It is of a personal nature.”
Me: “Of course.  And will you please call me Ms. Nelson?  Or just Nelson?  It’s what my students in America call me.”
Two girls: (They try it out.)  “Misssschnelsong.”  (I nod.)  “Okay.  Thank you.  Does that ring you wear signify engagement?”
Me: “Ha, no.  It’s actually a gift from my family.  My parents gave it to me to right before I left for China. I think of them every time I put it on.”
Two girls: “Ah, it is very beautiful.  We like it.”
Another boy wanted to know what I’d majored in in college, except his wording was different: he asked what I’d chosen “to pursue as a degree at university.”  And then a group of three girls found me.
Three girls: “Nelson, we would like to ask you a question.”
Me: “Of course!”
Three girls: “Of all of the girls in this class, which three do you think are the most beautiful?” (I swear they really asked me this.)
Me: “It’s impossible to say.  You are all so beautiful!”
Three girls: (Lots of adorable giggles.) “Thank you very much!  We think you are beautiful too!”
My mom would (correctly) call this a meeting of the Mutual Admiration Society.
Somehow all of the students here have known my first name, though I haven’t given it to them, and I’ve had to explicitly request that they call me Ms. Nelson or Nelson.  They aren’t being disrespectful; most of their foreign teachers have gone by their first names, and as much as I might want to be “cool” like that, I just can’t.  First, I don’t allow my students at home- not even ones I coach- to call me Jenne or Jennifer.  I might be old-fashioned at the ripe age of 27, but I started teaching when I was 22, and I’ve always seen the name thing as a way to help establish necessary boundaries: I am the adult.  You are the student.  This was especially important to me in my first year, when I was just beginning to develop my teacher persona.  Some of my students that year were only 4 years younger than me.
Second, there’s something special for me about being called Jennifer.  Excepting formal situations when I have to use my full name with strangers, it’s a name that only Matt and my family (immediate family, extended family, Matt’s parents) use.  I love to hear it- from them.  It’s the same rationale that explains why I live in St. Paul rather than in Minnetonka: I just like my school life and my personal life to be separate.   As much as I complain about the commute and as much as I care about my students, I’m actually very happy living 26 long miles away from them.  Just like I’m very happy with them calling me Nelson.
And speaking of names, my new students’ English names continue to delight me.  I’ve met lots of Jennys, a Dale (my dad’s name), a Sally (my grandma’s name), a Rebecca (my sister’s name), and one Matt.  You should have heard the kids squeal when I told them my boyfriend’s name is Matt.  That poor boy almost melted to the floor in embarrassment.  A few other of my favorites include but are not limited to: Sheep, Rabbit, Fancy, Cherry, Sail, Bond (like James?!), Jungle, Carrot, Yoghurt, Pike, Dream, Soap, Kitty, Fire, and Brain, which I thought for sure I’d heard wrong, but when I called him “Brian” later, he was quick to correct me.  (And interestingly, I haven’t had any Brians yet.)  I think Soap is my absolute favorite, but Carrot’s not far behind.
This parade of names-that-aren’t-really-names makes me think a lot about what I would choose to be called, if I was looking for a new moniker from all nouns and all adjectives and all verbs.  And it’s a really hard decision!  Maybe I’d just go with Ginger, but maybe not.  Strawberry Shortcake?  I used to love her.  Or how about Swede?  She’s my favorite character in Peace Like a River, and that one would speak to my ethnic heritage too.  Hmm.
So I’d love it you’d give this a little thought and then post what new name you’d pick for yourself in the comments.  Choose from any English word or combination of words, although please feel free to make some up too.  Today I met a boy named Inso, so…go crazy with your bad self.


  1. Picking a name is so hard! I've been thinking about Cat and decided my name would be Person. Yup. Can you imagine the wedding invites or Save-the-Dates for some of these? Carrot+Brain … I love it.


  2. I have a kid named Robot. I love calling on him because I get to say “Yes, Robot, what would you like to share?” or “Thank you for sharing, Robot” Its fantastic. Banana is another good one.


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