I have a last name that usually gets mispronounced at first. A misplaced emphasis. It sometimes takes a few patient corrections, and then people are all set. Well, I shouldn’t generalize. Because there was one very important person who got it right once, and not when it counted: My principal.
I was more involved than most at my high school: main roles in the plays and musicals, editor of the literary magazine, National Honors Society, etc. (Sorry for the tooting of my own horn.) But despite all my involvements, over the course of my four years, my principal could never seem to get my last name right. He got it right once and only once, at my senior year Baccalaureate Mass. But that was after some stumbling and after an English teacher first announced it correctly.
You see that English teacher never had me in class, but she was always around, saying hi, and stopping for a quick chat. Meanwhile, the principal was rarely seen in the hallways.
You could almost excuse him. Almost.
Here’s the thing: I wasn’t the only member of my family who went to that school while he was principal. In total, my family attended the school for nine years. My little brother, Peter, is just a year younger than me, and my older brother, PJ, graduated right before I arrived.
At this point, you might be thinking that I am obsessing over simple mispronunciations. So what? Your principal is just bad at pronunciation! I thought this for a while until my dad took action. Before my little brother’s graduation, my dad found the principal and took him aside.
“My name is Paul Kokias, and I have had three sons go through your school. And we love your school, that’s why we kept sending them here. But I need to ask a favor of you. You have never pronounced our last name right. It would be nice, after all this time, to hear my family name said correctly.” He then said our name several times, having the principal repeat it back, pointing out where the emphasis goes. You would think this was the third grade.
My little brother walked across that stage and the principal said our name for the last time. And completely messed it up. Sitting behind my father on the bleachers, I watched as he hung head in defeat.
Three Kokias boys (men) had walked across that stage but to our administration, we were just another difficult name on a list.
But the poor pronunciation was not the problem.
The principal was rarely seen in the hallways; amongst the rabble. How was he supposed to get to know the students he apparently represented? His mispronunciation was a symptom of a lack of respect.
To outsiders, the students represent the school. To students, their teachers and administration represent the school. And when a teacher or administrator does not take the time to know the most basic aspects of a student, what does it say about the school? And I understand that teachers and administrators have many tasks and obligations. But shouldn’t chief among those be facilitating a positive, united school community?
Facilitating a positive and united school community is not easy. And I will not even pretend to believe that I would know how to do it. But I know that taking it one step at a time makes it easier. And the first step can be one of the simple building blocks upon which all relationships grow: Acknowledging a person for the unique individual they are and showing you value them in the most basic of ways.
Pronouncing a name correctly is about respect for a fellow person.
It’s respect for a student who needs someone to look up to and not feel lesser than because that someone does not put the effort forward. For a Greek father who immigrated to this country with only his last name (they changed his first name because it wasn’t American enough).
Get to know the names of your students. Put forward an ounce of the effort that you ask of them, day-in and day-out. And, if you’re feeling ambitious, maybe get to know their stories too. After a few interactions that start off with honest mistakes, there is little reason not to know how to pronounce their name. After nine years? Well…