On Monday, I will get to meet my new students for the year. Which means that this weekend I am studying names and tiny little student ID photos that go with them. I do this every year, with never perfect success, but I usually meet my goal of memorizing most of their names by the third class. I mentioned last year that doing this with students wearing masks was almost impossible. I think it took me six or more classes before I had their names, and during the year I still made a couple of mistakes to my horror.
I make this effort, as many teachers do, because a person’s name is important. Each one contains a story about the person you are meeting, and getting to know their names is a way of honoring that story, and welcoming them to the community you are building in your class.
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Last fall, when I was nearing one year of writing this newsletter, I mentioned that I was thinking about changing its focus somewhat. One of my most faithful readers, Joel Neff, encouraged changing focus on an annual basis, as he has done with his newsletter, Learned (which I have recommended before and do so again). He also mentioned, in the comments, that he would be interested in knowing more about me, and how I became a teacher.
Something funny happened this summer that I thought I would share, and that will lead me to tell a personal story about myself. It comes from the somewhat odd fact that I have two middle initials, and that my daughter met one of my former students on the bus this summer.
One of my daughter’s favorite games is when she meets a student from my school is that she asks them if they had me as a teacher, without first revealing why she is asking. It’s all in good fun. This summer, she met a former student on the bus - I had had him in class just last semester. During their conversation the student revealed that there was rampant speculation in the class over the last school year about what names my two middle initials stand for (about which I had no idea - we never know what our students wonder about us!) He revealed that the current consensus in the class was Ishmael Carver (my middle initials are I. C.). My daughter found this “10/10 hilarious,” and confirmed for him (only) that this bit of speculation was incorrect.
Having two middle initials has been somewhat of a burden for me, for primarily two reasons, one less important than the other. First, most database software can’t handle it, so they drop one (or the other) and it is never right but not that big a deal (until you are dealing with TSA - but that’s another story). Second, I learned years ago that people make assumptions about those with two middle names - that it is somehow snooty or upper crust or an indication of extreme privilege. So I thought I would tell the (real) story - perhaps my students from last year will see this, and it will clear up the matter. But I am also trying to illustrate something else - that all of our names have a story, and making assumptions about others through their names is generally to be avoided. So here it is - I hope you will tell your *own* name’s story in the Comments.
My mother’s parents were from Newfoundland at a time when it was its own country, not yet part of Canada. My grandfather was from Upper Island Cove, my grandmother from Fogo, a small island off the coast. My grandfather was from a family of 7 children, and his father died at sea when he was young, which caused him to be sent to an Uncle who had gone blind - so he had a home, and so the Uncle had some help. That Uncle knew large parts of the bible and the psalms by heart, and taught my grandfather to memorize them as well. Perhaps this is what lead him to attend McGill University (in Montreal) on a full scholarship, and then lead him to seminary to become an episcopal priest. Part of his studies included spending a year as a “gospel reader” in the upper reaches of Labrador where he tended a very small parish and lived through an extremely cold winter.
On the way from McGill to Labrador, he took a ship which stopped in St. John (Newfoundland), where my grandmother was working as a telegraph operator, having moved there from Fogo for the job. A distant relative of my grandfather who knew my grandmother, sent her to retrieve him from the boat and bring him to his home for an overnight stay before my grandfather continued to Labrador. She reluctantly did so, and the two - the story goes - fell in love “on first sight.” They were separated for several years, and wrote letters to each other nearly every day. We still have those letters.
After my grandfather graduated from seminary, he and my grandmother were married, and he was then looking for his first posting as a priest. He was sent to Connecticut to stay with the Bishop there, because in those days, Bishops had to find money in the budget to send you to a parish, and they often did not have it. But this Bishop knew another Bishop in Missouri who might be able to hire him, and sent my grandfather there. He and his young wife took the train to St. Louis with their first child in tow.
Soon after he arrived, the Bishop of Missouri sent him to a small town ninety miles north of St. Louis called Louisiana, on the Western bank of the Mississippi River. Calvary Episcopal church needed a priest, as did two other parishes in Pike County. He and his wife did not think much of the posting, and he found it difficult to serve three parishes simultaneously. The pay was meager, and the town was uninteresting to them. (My grandfather, for context, was even then fluent in Greek and Hebrew, and later became a well-known biblical scholar). He wrote to the Bishop that he would not be able to make a home for his family in rural Missouri, and that he would be going back to Connecticut.
At this time - around 1920 - the “second uprising” of the Ku Klux Klan was mostly focused on anti-Catholic hatred. In this small town, the members of the KKK apparently confused the Episcopal church with the Catholic Church, and went into Calvary, painted KKK symbols on the walls and tore up the prayer books. When this happened, my grandfather sent a telegram to the Bishop asking him to disregard his letter. He stated that he believed he had been called to serve this parish. He did so for the next 36 years.
While they were still a young family in this town, my mother was born in 1925, and her younger brother was born in 1927. My grandfather David Coombs and my grandmother Ethel Meek Irish came from a world where you named your children either using your own names, or (more commonly) after family members who had come before and who had died. They had three children: Richard Paul Coombs who was named after my grandmother’s father, Ethel Frances Margaret Coombs (my mother - she dropped Ethel and went by Frances, but Margaret was one of my grandfather’s sisters), and David Irish Coombs, the youngest.
David was much loved. The youngest in many families often gets away with more - he was the scamp, the cut up, and comfortable with the river and the bars. He worked in the post-office and in a factory during the summers to pay for school. My mother adored him, as did my father who met him in college.
On September 9, 1955, David was killed in a car accident while he was driving home from St. Louis to visit his Mom and Dad. His death devastated the town, not to mention his family. My mother never got over it.
When I was born, I was named David Irish Coombs Thomson. My grandfather baptized me with that name a few months after my birth. Often growing up, people assumed I was named for my father, whose name was also David. But I was named for an Uncle I never knew, and I have four names just as an artifact of carrying his full name, plus my father’s surname.
As much as the name has caused me problems - and incorrect assumptions about me over the years - I have worn it proudly (or tried to) because he meant so much to so many people, and his life was so tragically cut short.
Please leave a comment and tell your own name’s story. And let us remember how important our student’s names are, because each one contains a story that is important - maybe very important - to them and to their family.
Letters of Recommendation
While we are on the subject of the priesthood, I thought I would recommend a book this week that I enjoyed a few years ago, and re-read this summer. It is a love story: The Monk Downstairs. A very enjoyable, light, summer read.
Q of the Week
The Quote of the Week this week is the text of my grandfather’s letter to the local paper thanking the town for their outpouring of love and support after the death of his youngest son, David Irish Coombs:
He Comes Not Again, For He is Here
As autumn clothes the banks and bluffs of our great river with the colors that come of the warm hazy days, and the crisp, clear nights, the voice of memory recalls how sweet this place and all its people were to our son David. He was a boy of the river, the country, and the town, knowing every landing, road and lane with the intimacy of the hand; knowing all who dwelt in every house, on every farm, and every one who went upon the waters.
His knowing came of working and living with the people on the river, the power lines, in the post-office, the factory. From school, college, army and from business, he returned with joy and gladness, for to him this was both home and haven; a place to renew the spirit and refresh the soul.
But he comes not again, for he is here, abiding forever in the place that gave him birth, and bred him to the life he lived so well; the life he spent with such a generous hand in enriching the lives of all his family, his friends and fellows. Home he is come from the city, from the crowd, to his home by the river; the river that runs on and on like time’s own stream, minding the memory of him who knew its deep currents and changing moods.
To all who have spoken their hearts to us in the home-coming of our son, we are most grateful.
David and Ethel Coombs
Great post, David. Such a rich history in your 4 names! I echo your point that our names tell a story and want to add a bit more. Our names are part of our identity, thus when someone opts not to take the effort you describe to know the names of those who you work with or (hopefully not) makes fun of someone's name through mispronunciation or otherwise it can have a deep, undermining impact on that person, their pursuits, and how others see and treat them. I continually have this concern in teaching law because much of traditional legal education is been framed around stripping away what a student knows and replacing it with "thinking like a lawyer". What does that say about how one's story and identity fit into the law? What does that mean for whether and how the law can change and grow?
If learning the law is new to non-traditional and first gen students, then all they have is their story and identity to build on - and we need to reinforce that foundation. The consequences if we do not can be dire.
You are imploring educators on all levels to embrace the story and identity of each and every one of their students. I can think of no better message to start the school year. Thank you.
I've got a few thoughts:
First, thank you for the shout-out, it's always appreciated and I'm always happy to see a new post by you in my inbox.
Second, and much more importantly, the letter from your grandfather to the town is beautiful. To be remembered so fondly is evidence of a life well-lived.
So, on to names - I'm fascinated by the use of Irish as a name is new to me. Is or was that a common name? Does it come from the country of Ireland or is it a coincidence? I guess it sticks out to me because it's an adjective rather than a noun - using a place name as a person't name isn't all that uncommon, but I'm hard pressed to think of adjective...
As for my own name, Mom had actually planned to name me David! But she worked as an elementary school teacher and had three different Davids in her class while she was pregnant. So she opted for her second favorite biblical name, Joel. She has told me since that if she had re-read the book of Joel while pregnant, I would have been Josh or possibly even Jonah. As it stands, Joel became my first name and David became my middle name.
And it causes no end of problems. Japan doesn't have middle names and so the forms and online fields that you mentioned often are not provided for middle names. And yet it's in my passport so it must be included...it leads to all kinds of confusion, but such is life.