2016-12-13

Below is City Year AmeriCorps member, Theda Tann's, speech from the Women's Leadership Cocktail Reception. Theda discusses how she felt erased by teachers who never took the time to learn how to pronounce her name when she was a student and how she uses that experience to empower her students to own their identities. 

Say my name, say our names

by Theda Tann, City Year Providence AmeriCorps Member proudly serving on the Bain Capital Team at Central High School

"My name is Theda. T-H-E-D-A. No it isn't they-da, the-da, or any combination of the above. My name is Theda."

But as every school year approached, the same ineffective lines would be uttered from my lips.

As the teacher neared the end of the roster, my hands begin to grow sweaty and my head droops low into my lap. Like a turtle hiding from impending doom but there would be no hiding for me. The teacher would clear her throat and then apologize in front of the classroom. In a last effort attempt to reconcile the wrong she was about to commit.

As my name wriggled their way free from her lips, she quickly scans the room for the owner of such a name. In the usual manner, I would hesitantly raise my hand, my voice quivering as I say, "No, it's actually pronounced Theda." Sometimes the teacher replies with a nod and moves on, other times the she proudly proclaims "Oh good...thanks Tina" and proceeds to butcher the next student's name.

Another day, another student, another head count in check.

You may be wondering why I bring up this story and for some of you, you may recall painful memories of your own. I share this moment in time to demonstrate how a single action or in this case a mispronunciation of one own's name, day after day, week after week, year after year could have prolong effects on an individual. On me. 

Instead of being the intelligent, goofy, and creative girl I was. I became the timid, shy, and invisible fly on the wall within my classroom. The mispronunciation of my name lead me to have misunderstanding of my abilities to speak up, self-advocate, and even see myself as a leader worth looking up to.

So in this year, as I stared down at the names on my roster. I saw future CEOs, doctors, lawyers, senators, teachers, social justice advocates, community leaders and I saw myself. My students were no longer just a number or name on a sheet of paper but a Josue, Naesha,  Jevonte, Emilio, and a Neyalee.

Neyalee, as she would have me pronounce it, is one of my leadership students within my ELA class at Central High School. As I stood at the doorway of the classroom to greet my students on the very first day of school, Neyalee made an effort to spend an extra five seconds sizing me up in her mind. Considering if I were someone who would give a hoot about who she was. However, little did she know that I made it my mission that day, not only to learn her name, but the rest of the 75 students that walked in and out of my classroom.

This task required grace, great patience, and little bit of rhyming techniques. For Neyalee, it required that I practiced her name aloud quietly as I walked to my third period class. It required that I stealthy remind my teacher of how to pronounce her name while he took attendance. It required that I took Neyalee aside and remind her that her name is beautiful and a unique part of who she is and who she will become.

At the beginning of the school year, Neyalee was critical of herself and doubted her abilities to succeed academically and cultivate a sense of belonging at Central. So when Neyalee told herself she was incompetent, I told her she is qualified. When Neyalee saw herself as weak, I showed her what an influential force she is. When Neyalee was told she was worthless, I reminded her that she is irreplaceable.

When I recognized Neyalee as a whole student, as a whole person...she began to recognize the intrinsic worth found in herself and in others. City Year enables me to empower my students, give them a platform to experiment, and recognize the beauty of their name.

At City Year one of our values is Ubuntu, which means I am because you are.

If you know my name, you know who I am.

The second portion of the value states that my humanity is tied to yours.

May my story and the story of my students ignite in you the ability to acknowledge the full humanity of others.

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