I know that someday you'll find better things.

Friday, May 24, 2013


Xavier Roberts achieved fame and recognition as the inventor of the Cabbage Patch Kids doll. Xavier, Charles Francis—better known as Professor X—achieved fictional accolades by founding a school for gifted young superheroes. Xavier, which means ‘new house’ according to some baby name websites and ‘savior’ according to others, has increased in popularity over the last few decades. The name currently holds the rank of #77 according to the most recent data available on babycenter.com.
Xavier might have a hard time finding a personalized little license-plate keychain at the airport someday.

Naming a child is such a huge responsibility. Finding the balance between too common and too unusual is challenging; many parents try to bridge this divide by selecting a popular name and choosing—maybe even inventing—an unusual spelling variation so that the child can still feel somewhat unique.

Which can be tough for souvenir-buying, let me tell you, especially when your children are old enough to seek out that omnipresent giant spinning magnet display, and two of the three spot their names while the other has to settle for “#1 Disney Fan!”

Should that even matter?

The effects of naming extend far beyond merchandising to sit squarely in the lap of socialization. What’s cool, what’s lame, and what does this rhyme with? Will the initials of the child’s full name spell something potentially inappropriate? All of these seem to be fundamental factors in determining social status among students in the primary grades.

For as long as I can remember, even since my own childhood, one of my biggest pet peeves has been when people make fun of others’ names.

Like ear-size and eye-shape, the recipient of that name had no choice or voice in the decision. It arrived at birth.

While teasing shouldn’t be tolerated, it seems like joking about a bad haircut (or hair-style) is a lesser offense than making fun of a name. Hair grows. Mullets are temporary. For most of us, names are forever—a lifelong gift from parent to child, usually chosen with great love and deliberation.

My heart breaks for the cross-cultural casualties, though—especially when a name is beautiful and honorable and deeply symbolic in its home culture and borderline (or completely) taboo in another. Russ once had a student, new to the United States, whose name was Phuc. Often students from other countries will adopt ’American’ names that are structurally similar or share the same first letter with their birth names, so no one was surprised when Phuc quickly became Peter.

The real shock came when he switched back to Phuc a month later.
Turns out some of the kids were teasing him about the name Peter. Go figure.

There’s also a tender place in my heart for those whose names have strong emotion-based origins. I think I’d be overwhelmed with the responsibility to live up to the possible idealistic expectations associated with the word. Will Allegra always be happy? Will she feel that she’s disappointing her family if she allows herself to show sadness? Are Dolores and Tristan condemned to a life of sorrow? How will Hope cope with doubt?

While trying to come to terms with the notion of falling in love with the son of her father’s sworn enemy, Shakespeare’s Juliet mused that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but I don’t agree that this can be applied to all situations.

Flowers, fruit, even sports equipment, maybe. (Jock strap? They really couldn’t think of anything better?) Names of people--real people—are different. Sacred. Special.

Despite their small size, the little keychains at the airport pack a powerful affirmation:

You matter, they say.
You’re someone, they say.
You belong.
The universe planned for your arrival to this gift store on this day.

Not having one can be a pinprick to the already fragile spirit. In that moment, hearing “But this means you’re unique! Isn’t that special?” doesn’t feel special. It almost tarnishes the term ‘unique’ because now ‘unique’ feels more like

You don’t matter.
You’re nobody.
You don’t belong.
Nobody knew or cared about your arrival to this airport on this day.

None of this is said in an attempt to find fault with the names you’ve chosen or to influence the names you might someday choose. This is your right and your responsibility. Your blessing. Your curse.

My only request is that at some point, even if it means special-ordering it, you bestow that little token of cultural acceptance to the one you’ve named.

Both of the aforementioned Xaviers valued acceptance. Xavier Roberts’s Cabbage Patch dolls were each packaged with a little adoption kit and birth certificate so that the doll could officially become part of the family. Professor X promoted self-acceptance among his clan and provided them with a safe and supportive environment to learn to accept themselves and one another.

Giving the ones you love a name keychain may seem minor, materialistic, or inconsequential, but it will go a long way toward long-term acceptance.

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