I really wanted to change my name in the 3rd grade. Because my given name is Elizabeth, I have plenty of options. (At least I wasn’t like my sister, who wanted to change her name from Leah to something like Samantha or Tiffany.) On the first day of school, I told my teacher that I went by “Liz”. Great, right? A fresh clean start for the beginning of the year. The problem is that I didn’t answer to it. She would call me by name and I would go along my merry way becoming the jump-roping queen of Jackson Elementary (true story!). I think we eventually had to have “the talk” that goes a little something like this:
Teacher: Liz, what’s your real name?
Teacher: No. I mean, what do your parents call you?
Me: (sigh)… Beth
And thus, I was Beth for the rest of my life.
Segue to a more recent story: I work at a non-profit that offers free English classes to adults in two low-income neighborhoods in Dallas. The campus that I’m at is in the Vickery Meadow area of Dallas, a neighborhood where refugee agencies resettle refugees. As a result, only 60% of our students are Hispanic, and thus, I can only accurately communicate with 60% of them. For the rest of the lower-level students, those from Africa, Middle East, and Southeast Asia, we communicate by arm-waving and facial expressions. Our sweet Burmese refugee students usually come to us with no formal education in their home language and so they know little English. We’ve been registering students for the upcoming semester and I’ve been fielding questions left and right for the past two weeks.
On Wednesday, two little old Burmese men came in to the office. I recognized one of them. I wish I had a picture of him. He might be the cutest old man I’ve ever met. And if you’re familiar with my affinity for old people, then you know I’ve met ALOT of adorable old men. Anyway, when I asked him his name, he looked at me, smiled, and said, “Mario.” This really threw me for a loop, considering:
1) I knew this student and while I couldn’t remember his name, I knew it wasn’t Mario.
2) Mario isn’t exactly a Burmese name. The names of our Southeast Asian students are usually monosyllablic and they have some weird consonant combinations (like Yw together).
So, trying to see if he was joking with me, I asked him to write it. Now, one Burmese student spent an entire week this summer practicing writing his first name, so I was banking on the fact that he would write his original (given) name. By golly, this little guy wrote out Mario! I told him to come to back the next day.
So when he came in on Thursday, I asked him his name again. He again told me “Mario”. I showed him my drivers license and asked if he had one. He indicated that it was at his house. I told him (through acting it out) to go get it and bring it back. Well, when he did, I saw that the name on the license was a Burmese name that I recognized. We laughed together really hard, probably for different reasons.
My guess is that some person told him he should have an American name that is easier to remember. What’s funny to me is that this 80 year old Burmese refugee who carries a woven bag and wears flip flops all the time is now identifying himself as Mario. Oh well. It could have been Alfredo or Tyrese.
Isn’t it funny how names tend to carry personality traits with them? Obviously Mario is not a good fit for an elderly Asian man. When Alex and I are discussing baby names (for OTHER PEOPLE’S KIDS), Alex will suggest a name that, to me, sounds like a lady of the night. I like the name “Amos” but Alex says that sounds like a crotchety old man. You probably would be hesitant to vote for a President named “Bart”, just like you would be uncomfortable going to a doctor whose name is “Duffy”. When people watching, I like to decide what someone’s name is- Oh, she’s a definite Wanda. No! Not a Tiffany! Names are important to us!
In biblical times, names were linked to your character. This is showcased by the fact that when God changed people’s lives, he sometimes also changed their names. Paul from the Bible was originally named Saul of Tarsus. According to this article here, Saul carried positive and negative connotations. In the Old Testament, Saul was the first king of Israel, but he also persecuted David, who was a king “after God’s own heart”. Saul was a Pharisee, a Jewish religious leader, who persecuted the Christians. He hated them! Then, in Acts 9, we get this story:
1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.
11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.
Later (it’s not really clear when), Saul begins to be referred to as Paul, which is a Romanized name and indicates the switch in Paul’s ministry from speaking to Jews to preaching to Gentiles (non-Jews).
Other people who got new names in the Bible? Abraham was originally Abram. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, was originally Sarai. Disciple Simon became known as Peter when Jesus renamed him. Jacob, after a wrestling match with GOD, was renamed Israel, which most likely means, “he who struggles with God”.
I don’t really have a point to this post. I just think the concept that your name speaks to your character is really interesting. I kind of wish that we still did the whole “God changed my name when He changed my life” thing. Then I could be “The blogger formerly known as Beth.”