Friday, June 24, 2016

The Apparently Cognitively Demanding Art of Naming a Child

When I was in third grade and lived in the northern California community of Fairfield, I had a friend named Brooke. Brooke was an only child of two moderately eccentric parents.  Brooke's mom was a part-time English teacher for the local high school district. Her father was a pharmacist at a local drug store. Brooke's parents and their aberratons could probably make up an entire abnormal psychology dissertation, but I'll save the dissertation for another occasion. I'll just discuss the birth of Brooke's baby brother tonight. 

Brooke's father, Mr. Pierce,  made himself and his strangely contentious tendencies known in our community in multiple ways, but one way in particular, which happened when I was still living in his community and was still a close friend of his daughter, stands out in my memory.  The Pierces had their second child -- a boy --  in December of the year Brooke and I were in third grade. Despite being in the Pierce home frequently, I had no idea Mrs. Pierce was expecting a baby. The baby was born about six weeks before his due date, which might have explained why Mrs. Pierce did not yet look like a beached whale, but I'm still not sure how they managed to keep all of us so thoroughly in the dark. Mrs. Pierce taught high school students, and even they were supposedly surprised by the addition to the Pierce family.

I didn't see Brooke at all during Christmas vacation. Then Brooke came back to school after Christmas break with her exciting announcement and with spread-eagle action shots of her mom pushing a kid out of her nether regions, followed by the obligatory breastfeeding photos in which Mrs. Pierce was nude from the waist  north. Our teacher, Mrs. Cole, was seated at her desk as Brooke held up each photo from her baby brother's  "birth story" and  couldn't see as Brooke held up the pictures for the children in the class. Mrs. Cole was in the process of completing and submitting her master's thesis that semester and took every available opportunity to rest on the district's dollar. Eventually she lifted her head off her desk for long enough to notice the class' s too-rapt attention to what Brooke was sharing, and wandered over to have a look for herself. The sharing session was abruptly halted. Mrs. Cole very likely had to field parent phone calls that evening concerning the rather explicit photo-sharing opportunity, though I don't recall anything every coming of it.

What I do recall was that, as she was helping Brooke to gather the photos, which she held in her desk for safe-keeping for the remainder of the school day, Mrs. Cole absently asked Brooke what her parents had named the new baby boy. "They haven't decided yet," Brooke answered.

Not too many days later, Brooke was especially excited as the class filed into our classroom. "Mrs Cole!' called out eagerly, "May I share?"

"Do you have any pictures to share this time?" Mrs. Cole asked with understandable apprehension.

"No, I just want to tell everyone something," she said as Mrs. Cole let out a sigh of relief.

"My mom and dad thought of a name for our baby!" she blurted out. "We're going to name him Adam!"

"Very nice," Mrs. Cole said absently.

The next day, Brooke half-dragged her feet, half-stomped them as we made our way into the classroom. Mrs. Cole asked her if anything was wrong.

"My dad said we can't name the baby Adam," Brooke responded.

"Why?" someone in the class asked.

"Because it's from The Holy Bible,"  Brooke explained. "He doesn't like any names that are from The Holy Bible."

"Didn't he know yesterday that Adam is in the Bible?" someone in the class asked. 

Brooke just shrugged.

A few days later, Brooke was once again enthusiastic as she arrived for school. She again asked to share with the class. "No pictures, right?" Mrs. Cole asked before granting Brooke permission to share.

Brooke once again took her place at the front of the classroom. "We found a name for our baby," she declared. "We're going to name him Todd!" 

One of the boys asked if there was anyone named Todd in the Bible. "Not that I know of, " Brooke replied. I remember not being particularly fond of the name Todd, but was relieved nonetheless that the poor child was finally getting a name.

The next day Brooke was once again less than cheerful as she entered the classroom. She didn't even wait for permission to address the class.  "We're not going to name him Todd, either," she muttered.

"What's wrong with the name Todd?" Mrs. Cole asked.

"Too many drug addicts are named Todd," Brooke explained. Mrs. Cole stifled a  laugh. Mr. Cole was named Todd.

A week or so later, Brooke was once again visibly excited as school began. "We found a name!" she enthused.

"What is it this time?"  Mrs. Cole questioned her.

"Jeremy!" she announced.

The next morning Brooke wore a frown as the  school day began. someone in the class asked, "Did your dad find something wrong with the name Jeremy?"

"Yeah," she snarled. "Too many black people are named Jeremy."

"Really?"  Mrs. Cole queried as the walked over to the white board, picked up a dry erase marker, crossed Jeremy off the bottom of a list of three names and left blank the space for the reason as she glanced nervously at Michael, the sole African-American student in our class. I hadn't noticed the list before. I didn't know when she started it.

The next name to be added to the list, if I recall correctly, was Franklin. Franklin was crossed off because Brooke's dad thought too many communists were named Franklin. Chad was added then removed because too many Okies were named Chad. Justin was axed because almost every homeless guy Brooke's father had ever met was named Justin. Bret didn't survive the cut because it was a very common name for male hairdressers. Too many homosexuals were named Evan. (One little boy asked what a homosexual was. "Someone who is gay," I gladly contributed to his knowledge base as Mrs. Cole cringed.) Too many criminals were named Nathan. A disproportionate number of religious zealots were named Stanley. Too many Canadians were named Jeffrey or Geoffrey. Too may welfare recipients were named Aiden. Too many child molesters were named Caleb. Too many Catholics were named Anthony. Too many truck drivers were named Keith. Too many pimps were named Jerome. (I doubt anyone in the class other than Brooke knew what a pimp was, but we all sensed it was a good idea to leave that one alone.) I remember Mrs. Cole saying "I saw this one coming from a mile away" as she crossed Kevin off the list because it was too Irish. 

Mr. Pierce's list of prospective names and the reasons for rejecting them the next day, in and of themselves, comprised an entire course in sociology. One night at dinner as I was sharing the latest name and Mr. Pierce's reason for rejecting it, my mom mused aloud that she suspected that Mr. Pierce was sober in the morning when he or someone else in the family came up with the name, but then threw the name out for the first reason that popped out once his blood alcohol content reached 0.24. In retrospect, there was probably more than a shred of truth to her theory, although, considering Mr. Pierce's line of work,  a substance even more potent than alcohol may have been the operative agent. My dad didn't say much of anything as I recall. He and Mr. Pierce had once bonded over a bottle of Atomic Fireball whiskey, which they took turns passing back and forth and pouring into their fruit punch as they sat through an especially tiresome class presentation of an obnoxious parody of Snow White. My dad was one of the few adults in the community to whom Mr. Pierce spoke voluntarily.

The list grew so cumbersome that it practically took over our entire front white board. (When Open House was held the last week of April, Mrs. Cole discreetly papered over the part of the white board containing the list with a display of our Mother's Day haikus, but Brooke enthusiastically tore our haikus from the wall the next day as she came in with her latest name addition to the list.)  When the list reached the point that Mrs. Cole could no longer put our daily oral language assignment on the white board, she carried a long strip of turquoise butcher paper from the office, which she attached to the wall next to the front white board. The children with decent printing (every girl in the class except I and one boy in the class named Ian) took turns transferring the names and the reasons for their eventual rejection onto the butcher paper. By the next-to-last day of school, the list extended from the ceiling almost to the floor. There was room for one more name if it was printed in tiny letters.

On the penultimate day of third grade, Brooke arrived with one more name. She seemed especially excited as this one rolled off her tongue. "Robert is on both sides of the family. William is on both sides of the family. Harrison  was my mom's last name before my parents got married. Pierce is our last name!" I recall Brooke being as proud of the compromise that her family had reached in composing this masterpiece of a name as she might have been if they had come up with the Magna Carta or the quadratic formula. 

Mrs. Cole said something to the effect of "Don't get too comfortable with the name. There might be too many Quakers named Robert William Harrison Pierce," as she knelt on the floor to print what would be the final name submission. Much to Mrs. Cole's and to many of her classmates' surprise, Brooke didn't announce a repudiation of the name when she arrived at school the next morning. I'm not sure at what point the name became legal, but Will, as he was called by the family, is now thirteen years old and is still Robert William Harrison Pierce.  

Brooke took the butcher paper list of all of her brother's potential names home with her on the final day of school. Mrs. Cole was concerned that Mr. and Mrs. Pierce might be offended, but Brooke assured her that it her parents were not easily offended. If Will were born today, he would probably have an entire Facebook page dedicated to his potential names and with anyone in the cyberworld who had an opinion weighing in with it in the "comments" section. Alas, as he had the misfortune of coming into existence even before MySpace, the saga of his name is memorialized only on butcher paper and now in this blog.

Interestingly enough, Robert William Harrison Pierce is only one of two children I know who had teeth in place well before their parents got around to naming them. My parents' friends the Ratzlaffs took almost five years to come up with the name Michael for their little boy.