Identity Crises

It was my first year teaching eleventh-grade English in a big-city suburb. I was new to the school and to the community, so staff members filled me in on “everybody knows but we can’t write it down” features of the job, of the school, of the students.

Especially trouble-making students, most dangerous of whom were smart and devious, the ones you could never quite nail, either on behavior or on grades. One of the worst. . . would be in my third period class. “You want to watch out for Paul Hannelwitz,” an assistant principal told me. “Make him sit in front.” A teacher agreed: “Hannelwitz is a trouble maker.”

First day. Third period. In came the Hannelwitz crowd. They sat, waiting for me to read the list and assign seats. I got through seven letters of the alphabet, then came to H. The first H was Paul Hanulewicz. I said, “Han-u-le-vich, you here?” Dead silence for a few seconds, then a hand raised, and a body moved to the next seat, without comment. And made no comment or trouble the whole class. When the bell rang, he stopped at my desk and said, “You pronounced my name right.” I nodded. “Thank you,” he said.

So. The year wasn’t perfect. Paul and I clashed a few times, but for the most part, it wasn’t bad.

What does that have to do with anything? I thought about Paul again, after the Boston bombing, when network reporters, talking about the Tsarnaev brothers, called them Zarney and Tarnayev and Charnev. (A few did manage to say TSAR-NA-YEV, which is what their family members said.)

Then we learned that the older brother felt he had no friends at all in this country. I couldn’t help wondering if his teachers, too, had bobbled his name, and if that had anything to do with his estrangement.

Learn to pronounce Russian names? That’s the answer to terror threats?

No, of course not.

Still, pronouncing them badly is a symptom of failure, a reluctance or unwillingness to understand newcomers, outsiders, people who are different in any way. We tend to forget that all of us — save Native Americans, who, ironically, also are marginalized — all of us used to be newcomers.

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