Hi, my name is Albiona.
Wait, what’s your name?
Ok say that slower for me.
Do you have a nickname?
You’re going to have to forgive me, I’ll never be able to remember that.
In so many ways, our names tell the stories of who we are. Growing up with the name Albiona did not make me feel like one of the other kids at school. Where I grew up, most of the girls had names like Jennifer, Kimberly and Melissa. If you had a “unique” name, it was just weird.
In all fairness, I have been told by many, that’s a beautiful name. The issue for me was not how others perceived my name, but that it took until my 30s to appreciate it for myself.
When I was in the first grade, my teacher asked me to come up with a nickname because my name was too hard.
What if we call you Abby? That’s pretty close to your name.
At 6 years old, I was delighted.
If I could be Abby, I would just blend in with the others. What a relief!
No more substitute teachers butchering my name when they call attendance — the entire class laughing, me correcting her, us repeating that sequence throughout the school year. Abby sounded perfect!
After a few days of going by Abby, I brought my schoolwork home to show my parents.
Oh no, you emptied the wrong mailbox. You have someone else’s work.
No it’s mine.
No it’s not, it says Abby.
Yeah, my teacher says it’s too hard to say my name, so she asked if she can call me Abby. It’s close to my name.
My mom closed her eyes, took a deep breath.
I’m going to take you to school tomorrow and walk you in. I want to say hello to your teacher.
The next day my mom walked me in the classroom and politely waved my teacher over. They had a brief conversation, she smiled and left. Neither my teacher, nor my classmates ever called me Abby again.
Abby is a lovely name — it’s just not mine.
My name is a part of who I am. Asking me to change it is like asking me to change my eye color. It tells the story of my Albanian ethnicity, which gives me a sense of pride. I am the daughter of immigrant parents who chose to give their children Albanian names to express our culture in a new country. My name epitomizes so much of who I am.
When I first began teaching preschool, I was young and wide eyed, excited to have my own classroom. On my first day, I introduced myself to all the parents. One parent raised her hand.
What are the kids supposed to call you?
Albiona. (In many early childhood classrooms, children will use the first name rather than the last).
They won’t be able to say that.
At this point I was no longer 6 or 10 or 15. I was beginning to wear my name well.
Actually, I think they’ll be just fine. I am going to bet big on your kids, and I bet they can say a 4-syllable word. And I think they’ll remember it. Does anyone else have any other questions?
I went on to teach for 12 years, and every single child called me Miss Albiona or Albiona. I never cared if they dropped the Miss. One of my greatest mentors told me don’t ever get caught up with titles. Kids don’t care and neither should you. Show up and be present — that’s your job. Kids don’t see things as different or weird. It just is. That was my name and they were happy to say it.
Once, I invited a dentist to come meet my very special group of 4-year-olds. The kids were so excited for a visitor to come and talk to us, even about dental hygiene. We got ourselves ready, shook out our wiggles and sat in a circle ready to take in the importance of brushing and flossing.
I’m so happy to be here and thank you Applonia for having me here in your classroom.
I was familiar with just about every mispronunciation of my name, but the kids were not. I attempted to glide over it, conditioned for so many years to think it was my fault for having a hard name so I shouldn’t say anything. Don’t bring more attention to an already uncomfortable moment.
As I looked at the children, their faces shifted. Scrunched up noses, wide open mouths, glances ping ponging back and forth between us. I looked at them and smiled, and I knew what their little eyes were telling me. Say something! I couldn’t. I stood there frozen.
The dentist begins and says my name incorrectly again. Immediately, one of the kids shouts, You’re saying our teacher’s name wrong! Another one looked at her and said, You need to learn how to say her name right, it’s like this L-B-ona.
They did what I had always struggled to do. And they did it with ease.
The dentist was receptive. She apologized, as much to the kids as to me.
Now, when people mispronounce my name, I smile.
Oh you’re close, let me say it again.
When you ask people to adjust or assimilate, they are offering you an opportunity to affirm your identity. And with that affirmation, you can invite them to grow.
As I have always told my students, Listen, learn, embrace and love. Kindness will always win
Albiona Rakipi is a pediatric speech and language pathologist, founder of Kiddos and Insights (kiddosandinsights.com), a parent coach and writer.
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