Tuesday, January 16, 2007

And What is Your Name?

Well, the second semester begins tomorrow. We had exams during the second half of last week, a holiday on Monday, and a teacher work day today. Tomorrow I get to meet a whole new group of students with whom I will be spending 56 hours during the next four and a half months. The first day is always a challenging day for me. It's a day I generally enjoy, trying to get a read on the new groups, learn their names, get a sense of what the chemistry in the room is going to be. It's a day I value, and look forward to. (I have a harder time with last days: I always find it difficult to find the right note to end on.)

I have a couple of standard items of business I always attend to. I hand out file cards and have the students answer some generic questions about where they're coming from and what's on their minds. The school suggests/requires that I hand out an "expectations sheet" which outlines the goals of the course and lets the students—and the parents—know how they can get in touch with me. And I usually do some kind of an exercise that allows me to learn their names before the first day is over. The one that has worked the best for me is first to tell them the story of my name: Richard Bruce Schauble.

"Richard" was the given name of my mother's brother Dick Porter, who worked as as an engineer with the Lummus Company in New York City, designing cracking furnaces for refining petroleum. One day Dick decided to bring a co-worker home for dinner with him, a man with the resoundingly Germanic name of Otto Charles Schauble. When Otto arrived at Dick's house for the meal, he met Dick's younger sister Miriam. They fell in love, got married, and some years later decided to name their sixth child, me, after the man who had introduced them.

My middle name, Bruce, was the name that my mother wanted me to be called. But she thought that Richard Bruce sounded better than Bruce Richard, so she put them in that order on the birth certificate. I was named Bruce after my mother's father, Oren Bruce Porter, who passed from this earth several hours before my arrival on it.

My family name, Schauble, is the name of an old German family from the Schwartzwald, or Black Forest area of Germany. I'm not in touch with any relatives there, although Wolfgang SchaĆ¼ble, five years my senior, has had a long and in some cases unfortunately colorful career in German politics.

Having shared this much about my name and its history with the students, by way of providing a model, I ask them to work with a partner and have the partner share the story of his/her name. Each student is then asked to say his/her own name, to introduce the partner to the class, and then to tell the story of that person's name. While those presentations are going on, I'm mentally going around the room attempting to lock in each name with a face. Usually by the end of the exercise, about fifteen minutes, I've got them down, at least for that moment. If I have trouble the next day, and I usually do have trouble with a few of them, I try refresh my memory by taking attendance.

Depending on how much time is left over, I will either share a brief reading with the students, often a poem, and give them a short writing assignment based on what we have read, or give them another short writing assignment which I most often make up on the spot. If I were making one up right now, for example, I might ask them to think about what name—first, middle, and last—they would have chosen for themselves if they had been given the choice, write that name at the top of the page, and then write the story of THAT name.

I'll close this post with a poem by Mark Strand that a colleague brought to my attention this fall, one which I will probably find some way to work into the exercise I just described, either as a setup or a followup. It describes a moment of wonder and self-recognition and a kind of transcendence, the kind of moment we might hope to experience at least once or twice in a lifetime, or perhaps, if we're lucky, in a new semester of sophomore English:

My Name

Once when the lawn was a golden green
and the marbled moonlit trees rose like fresh memorials
in the scented air, and the whole countryside pulsed
with the chirr and murmur of insects, I lay in the grass,
feeling the great distances open above me, and wondered
what I would become and where I would find myself,
and though I barely existed, I felt for an instant
that the vast star-clustered sky was mine, and I heard
my name as if for the first time, heard it the way
one hears the wind or the rain, but faint and far off
as though it belonged not to me but to the silence
from which it had come and to which it would go.

1 comment:

Dr. Delaney Kirk said...

Great idea to share the origins of your name with your students...it makes you more human to them and helps create a classroom culture of trust.