The name game

With a classroom full of students, remembering each name requires a few memory tricks.


I would like to state at the outset that I have a good memory. Very good. Maybe even prodigious. Long term? No problem. I can remember my locker combination from freshman year in high school (34-42-32), my family's telephone number when I was 5, and the license plate number of my father's 1962 Nova (CFX268). Short term? Also no problem. This morning, for breakfast, I had a bagel and cream cheese, a bowl of Rollin' Oats, a cup of Lipton tea, and a banana. An hour ago I was rousing my teenage son, Anton, from bed. (In five minutes I will go up and rouse him again.) Fifteen minutes ago my older son, Alyosha, called to ask if he could borrow a hammer, a saw, and a drill with a 5/32" bit.

So why do I have trouble with names? Whenever I mistake a Jill for a Jane, or a Jack for a Joe (or worse, a Dave for a Jeremiah), I am reminded of my grandmother, who also forgot names and had the most cumbersome system for excavating the right ones: she'd run through the alphabet – out loud – until she struck gold. Once, years ago, she was telling me about a boy she knew who went off to World War II, but his name escaped her. I recall her squinting in frustration, and then, "I think his name was Adam, Bill, Chuck, Dave, Evan, Frank? Frank!"

I haven't yet gotten to this point (I perform the alphabet maneuver in silence), but I do find myself preoccupied with the phenomenon of name-forgetting. As a college teacher, I try to learn every one of my student's names, making mental notes of their physical attributes in order to jog my memory. For example, Stephanie has straight hair (Stephanie/straight, get it?).

Still, in the course of the semester, I find myself struggling. This is especially embarrassing when I am giving a student one-on-one help. As he or she sits next to me, staring down at the material, I find myself repeatedly taking sidelong glances, thinking, "Paul/tall? Don/blond?" And, of course, if that doesn't work, "Alan, Ben, Chad?"

All I want is to be able to associate names and faces with seamless ease. I don't have what it takes to look somebody in the eye, somebody I know, and tell them I've forgotten their name. Sometimes I think the culprit is not so much me as that there are so many names that are common. Surely by now the world has reached its saturation level of Seans, Ryans, Jennifers, and the ubiquitous Katelyns (with their myriad spellings). I think it's high time to bring back the Hazels, Mabels, Edgars, and Stanleys. I know someone with each of these monikers, and their relative rarity makes them unforgettable.

Of course, another solution would be to strive for absolute uniqueness. This, of course, is already being done. Consider the late rocker Frank Zappa's daughter, Moon Unit. Or Johnny Cash's ode to a boy named Sue. A search of the Web turns up a site titled – what else? – Odd Names. Among them: Bambina Broccoli (New York City), Newton Hooton (Cambridge, Mass.), and Belcher Wack Wack (who was married, one after the other, to the Wack brothers). I think that if any of my students had names such as these, remembering them would be a breeze. I could easily see myself comforting a student with the words, "Now calm down, Belcher. There's still time to improve your grades."

Things get serious, of course, when one momentarily forgets the names of one's children. Just the other day I repeatedly called to my 13-year-old, Anton, to pick up his room. I finally asked him why he wasn't cooperating. He threw me a quizzical look and said, "I didn't think you were talking to me."

"What do you mean?" I asked him.

"You kept calling me Alyosha."


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