Being known

7:12 am. I check the clock, close my computer, grab the coat and scarf I had left on the couch, and head for the front door. A line of cars awaits. John joins me, as do Lisa, Gaby, Ian, and Mateo. We each find our spots: John at the top, and me at the crosswalk. 

– – – 

More than the names themselves, I’ve grown accustomed to the pause, and the body language. When people are uncertain, they do something: lean away, flip that wayward strand of hair behind their ear, or sip their coffee. It buys them time, and although it doesn’t seem to help them, it is a signal to me. 

– – – 

7:15 am. Just like the Postal Service, we open car doors every day regardless of the weather. When I started, I was informed that the process was necessary to ensure safety. Given a short driveway and young children, adults needed to open doors, unbuckle car seats, and manage two lanes of traffic. They needed to remind hurried, under-caffeinated drivers to slow down to spot care-free little ones darting from the warmth of their cars to the building.

– – – 

They continue, “Tah…Tom…”

I offer, “Tamara. That’s me. Rhymes with camera.” 

Eyes look up. A smile. Relief. The first attempt at my name has ended. 

They pause again before they reach for their water bottle.

– – – 

7:20 am. When I was first hired at the school, I volunteered to open car doors every day at morning drop off. John was the only employee who joined me every day. A collection of other people joined us one day a week, often hustling to open their first door, themselves a few moments late. 

– – – 

I continue, “Schurdak. It’s like you’re agreeing with a doctor: Sure, Doc.”

Again, a smile, and likely some comment about the double challenge of a first and last name.  I smile in return, acknowledging their difficulty. 

– – – 

7:25 am. I open the door, bend over to lean in, and a cloud of warm air shields me momentarily from the frequent New England morning chill. The longer the commute, the warmer the car. Sometimes I’m greeted by slowly opening eyes, as my motion and the cold air is ripping them from a nap and dreams they hadn’t yet wanted to leave. 

I’d never considered how people maintain their cars. Some people apologize. I tell them not to worry. Occasionally, I spot the remains of breakfast. I may hear snippets of the songs they’ve been playing. In almost every case there are numerous belongings to manage: book bags, lunch bags, sports bags, a baseball bat, a cello, a stuffed animal friend, a ukulele, an art project, a science model — often too many things to handle in one trip. 

Regardless of the items, all the students look for John. He is always at the front of the line. 

– – – 

We talk a lot about names. In schools, we talk a lot about pronouncing names correctly, and the ease with which we pronounce some and the challenges with which we pronounce others. We talk about calling a child the name they want to be called. 

To me, it is more than the name. It is the small motions and telltale signs of discomfort that are associated with a hard-to-pronounce name. It is the fact that a teacher would sometimes call on me less often because they weren’t sure how to pronounce my name. 

They had forgotten my mnemonic tricks. By December, opening days were a distant memory. 

– – – 

7:30 am. I watch John. He welcomes every student by name. He greets almost every caregiver by name. He often has a question to ask each person, a comment about a play they had executed in a game the day before, or a project displayed in the hallway. 

It’s always quick. Everything during drop off is almost too quick, a perfect reason to say nothing other than, “Good morning.” The next car is coming. A parent needs to get to work, to yoga, back home, all with the same urgency. But John has something to say, something only he shares with that student. He celebrates the small daily efforts and successes, and he soothes the slights. 

– – – 

As a white, cisgendered female-identifying person, I carry many privileges, and the hesitation around my name was more often only an annoyance, something my friends and I chuckled over. And yet, when I got to college and my college Dean learned my name, and checked in about one thing or another big and small, I felt the difference. As a student who had worked hard, but who had also done so in a quiet way (believing only those “in trouble” required attention), I had been cautious, careful, and rule-following. My Dean encouraged me to think, create, and be me. My college career changed. 

He even looked at me, smiled, and shrugged when the university administrator mispronounced my name at graduation. Yes, I had provided the mnemonic spelling.

We talk a lot about names. And it is names, and so much more. Do we lean away? Or In? Do we pause? Avoid contact? Hope to open a different car door?  Names have meaning, and knowing them is one way we signal interest in one another. It is one of many ways we begin to connect. It is a beginning. It is difficult to build a stable structure when the foundation is missing.

– – – 

7:35 am. After my first year, we changed the drop-off protocol. We used the same staff every day. We shared our pictures and our names before the first day of school. We aimed to say hello to each student every morning.

“Good morning, Jeremiah

… Hayley

… Jerome

… Diego

… Abigail

… Mùchén

… Oleksandra

… Rioko

… Fatima.”

“How is the new puppy?

… was your afternoon making cookies with your grandmother?

… was your sledding playdate with Joaquín?”

The kids don’t forget. At the end of the year I ask them to write six-word memoirs. Here are a few: 

  • Mr. John. Every Morning. Thank You.
  • When can I visit Mr. John?
  • Mr. John, you see me. Grateful.

My morning routine has become a favorite part of each day. I lean in. I try not to pause. I make plenty of mistakes, and then I try again the next day.

There is nothing that feels quite as uplifting as the smile or hug I get from a student. There is nothing like the half-asleep three-year-old I release from the car seat, who rests their head on my shoulder hoping for just a few more moments of comfort as I hoist them up and out, or the slightly-more-awake three-year-old who, once standing, reaches up for my hand. 

And of course, they get my name right on the second day, and they don’t forget it.