Called by a New Name

Called by a New Name


By Jan Schoenherr Published in Alive Now: Growing Together in Faith (September/October 2000, pgs 48-51)

“Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” So goes the saying from my childhood. I suppose, even then, when I would shout back at playground bullies, I knew that it wasn’t really true. Words can hurt a lot. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had the need to strike back with that phrase. It wasn’t until I became an adult and a teacher, however, that I began to see the real power behind words, especially name-calling words. Over my years of teaching, I have witnessed the “naming” of children by parents, teachers, and peers as “failure,” “troublemaker,” “no good,” and have seen these names become the child’s identity.

 Ironically, the names thrown at some of these children have helped to shape them into stone throwers on the playground at school. One child in my class began the year bullying other children with rock-throwing and other violent behavior. When I discussed him with my principal, I began to realize just how long this child had had the identity of “bully.” I found out that he had been behaving violently in school since kindergarten. I found out that there had been a violent death in his family. His mother told me that the only way she knows how to protect her son is to make sure he grows up tougher than the other kids. When I tried to tell her that I thought her son’s best defense against this sort of thing happening to him would be for him not to hang with that sort of crowd, she looked at me like I was crazy. I realized then what different realities she and I lived with.

 In spite of the fact that his mother didn’t seem to want to help us change his behavior, we set up an intervention team meeting for him and brainstormed some things to do. Sadly, none of them worked. My principal tried to encourage me, saying, “You can’t beat yourself up over all the things that are beyond our control. He’s one of our truly troubled kids. I’m not sure what we can do to change that. It’s hard, but sometimes you have to realize it is not possible to save everyone.”

 Not ready to decide that this child was one that I simply couldn’t help, I sought new inspiration. I talked to others and gained support in my efforts. I reflected every morning on my way to school how to best reach him. It was during one of these reflection times, after reading a devotion about how Jesus claimed the “Peter” part of Simon Peter’s name, calling him the rock upon which the church would be built, that the idea came to me that I needed to change this child’s name. (Peter is Petros in Greek, which is closely related to petra, meaning rock.)

 I began to call this child by a shortened version of his name, always said with affection. I began to look for ways to “name” him differently. Instead of dwelling on the fact that he had trouble with math and reading, I named him “artist,” recognizing one of his gifts. I gave him the job of helping other kids with computer problems, naming him “computer expert.” I tried to look for times when he was able to share or be kind to others and comment on that, making that part of his identity. And he began to change, so much so, that others in the school began to comment on the difference.

 At the point of this writing, halfway through the school year, this change has not taken place for him outside of the school environment, however. But it takes time and patience to change patterns of behavior, and it’s hard to be different in an environment that still names you the old way. But perhaps, with grace, these new names can become the rocks this child can stand on that may somehow, in the future, shape a different life for him. I look for a day when I can see him step out onto one of them outside of my classroom and have it hold him up. The stone I am currently holding fast in one labeled “Hope.”