Jennifers I have known


First of all, thank you to everyone who keeps voting daily. Remember to keep voting every day through 5PM May 2 at: http://neilgaiman.bookperk.com/engine/Details.aspx?p=A&c=29933&s=7776799&i=1

If I’m going to win this thing, I need some serious help. Right now, #20 has over 600 votes, which makes my 360 look lonely. (Cast your vote to keep the others company!)

If you know me at all, you know I’m abysmal with names. I can’t remember them.  My ability to store them together with faces plummeted when I started teaching college face to face, took a nose dive when I had children, and bottomed out altogether when I moved to teaching online.  Now that my kids are in school, I spend a lot of time smiling blandly at other parents, hoping to God they don’t remember my name any better than I remember theirs. Caroline is so in love with one boy that she swears she’s going to marry him; she’s had playdates at his house; and his mother and I once spent twenty minutes talking to each other at another kid’s birthday party. Can I remember her name? Of course not.

Sam switched schools last November, and a little girl we adore who went to his old school switched to his new one a few weeks after Sam did. I was talking on the phone to her Mom and asked if she was going to come to the new school after she had already been attending it. Her Mom was too polite to point this out. I noticed her name on her cubby a few days later and felt like a complete idiot. In contrast, Caroline has been at the same school since September. The parents are all heavily involved in the class and I see them frequently. But I only know three names. The others are all So-and-So’s Mom, and in two cases, I can’t remember who little So-and-So is either.

Part of the problem is that I seem programmed to only remember one person for each name I know. So when I know multiple people with the same name, my brain experiences system overload and starts creating workarounds to store the extra person. Typically, the workaround involves a nickname. The best example of this is the name Jennifer. Mercifully, there are a lot of things one can do with Jennifer, because I know five of them, two of whom are Jennifer Anns (well, Jennifer Ann and Jennifer Anne).

My best friend from preschool was and always will be Jenny. She goes by Jen now, but somebody else has that slot,  so she’s “Jenny” forevermore to me. Then there’s the woman who was in my wedding. We were close at the time, but we barely know each other now. Doesn’t matter. She’s got a permanent lock on the “Jen” position. My former colleague and dear friend for life is the only actual “Jennifer” in my mind, but until our desks were side by side, I had her stored in a slot labeled “the neat lady up front whose daughter is Dorothy in the 8th grade Wizard of Oz.” Yeah. That daughter is getting married this year people, I know her pretty well, and I still have to run through played-Dorothy-in-Oz to remember that her name is Kerry. Jenifer number four is my son’s music teacher. I have no idea whether or not she spells her name with one “n”, but I sure do, because otherwise, I’d constantly have her mixed up with Jennifer with two “n’s”. And then there’s my husband’s colleague Jennifer, who I can only think of by her full name. When Scott mentions “Jennifer” in conversations, I look at him blankly until I remember her entire name, and then I know who we’re talking about. Until then, I’m thinking, “but Jennifer lives in Kentucky, man”.

It gets worse when we start to talk about students. I typically have 90 at any given time, and usually at least five of them are named Michael. (Oh yeah –  Kerry-who-is-not-Dorothy? Her fiancée is a Michael. So is her brother, but he’s in my ‘Mick’ slot, which is good because I’d never keep those people straight.) And it doesn’t matter that I’m teaching online where people’s names are right in front of me for Pete’s sake. I still have managed to return the wrong essays to people who then have to politely request the right one.  And many of them go by nicknames which are not right in front of me, making my confusion even worse.

Hi everybody, my name’s John, but I go by Buzz… (Sorry. Buzz is an action figure from my son’s favorite movie. You’ll have to be John in here.)

My eal name is Germain, but I really hate it, so please call me Bo. (Can you tattoo it backwards on my forehead, Bo? So I can see it every time I look in the mirror? Coz I’m not gonna remember that.)

Hi everybody, I’m Joshua, but I go by Josh. (You know, that one is at least part of the name I see onscreen, but you’re pretty well doomed because some people get insulted if their names are shortened, and I can never remember who is who.)

Online, I can at least refer to the screen and get the answer some kind of right. When I taught face to face, I had to rely on eye contact to call on students to ask and answer questions, which wasn’t very effective. But it was better than saying “Yes, you in the back corner with the plaid shirt and funky glasses. What did you need?”

I also dread events where you have to put on a nametag, because then I’m supposed to really be able to refer to a person by name. It’s written right there after all. But half the time the name is hidden in the folds of a shirt, or smeared, or written so sloppily that its owner seems to be called something in Cyrillic. I usually resort to the educated mumble, or the classic “introduce myself and hope you do the same”. When desperate, I’ll just come out and ask. “I’m so sorry. I’ve forgotten your name again.” Half the time, they’ve forgotten mine, too, and all is well. But I still hate to ask, because names are such an important part of identity.

In fact, the worst part of this for me is that I take names seriously. The fact that I love my husband’s name did not make it possible for me to change mine. My identity is too caught up in being Jessie Bishop Powell. I think I figured out how to make the change several years ago. I want to append his name to mine with a comma, not a hyphen, so it’s like a title. Jessie Bishop Powell, Merriman. But even that step is taking me a lot of getting-around-to. The long and short of it is this: for someone as bad at names as I am, I’m awfully attached to mine being exactly like it is. I hate people who “Mrs. Merriman” me, because my last name isn’t Merriman and, even more importantly, my first name isn’t Mrs. In teaching, I go by my first name and cringe when students struggle to use it. I don’t really like being Ms. Powell or Prof Powell. (First name’s Jessie, folks).

However, the next time we run into each other in public, you might want to watch me for the telltale signs. I’ll stare at you when I think you’re not looking, trying to remember where I cataloged you in my brain. I’ll make bizarre conversation that requires us both to say our names. And, if I’m really in a bind, I’ll just ask. But don’t take it personally if I’ve forgotten who you are. Just remember I’m nomenclature challenged and take pity on my disability.

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2 thoughts on “Jennifers I have known

    • Tee hee — when I learned your real name, I spent the better part of five years trying to figure out how to somehow morph from Mary to Em. I tried “auntie M”, but that didn’t work. Eventually, you finally landed in two slots “Mary Noel” and “Auntie Em”. For this reason, I will possibly NEVER learn to spell your last name, even though at this exact moment I do know how!!

For the love of Mike, TALK to me! (Concrit welcome on fiction)

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