№ 288 (To Muse on a Name)


This post originally appeared on a previous personal blog. I’m republishing it here with the original post date.

From late 2010 through early 2012, I lived in Taiwan and taught English in the Hsiaogang district of Kaohsiung. One particular day a few months into my job there, a little girl was introduced to my class, knowing no English and having no English name. In English class in some places, it is customary for a student to go by an English name, just as I went by Pedro in Spanish class throughout high school despite being named David in real life (this choice of name having to do with a comic in the back of Boy’s Life magazine in the ’80s). In any case, I was asked to give her an appropriate English name.

Having never named a child before, not even for the sake of a language class, I was a bit worried. A name is a big deal, and may be something a child comes to identify with. I’ve met people in their 20s and 30s who, in English, still go by the names given to them in English class in elementary school. Some students wind up with unfortunate names like Candy, which was the name of a girl in the same class who once coughed in my face at point-blank range and gave me a case of the flu that wiped several days from memory thanks to the related fever. Others, like a joyful girl who always danced in her seat named Maria, and Tom, in Maria’s class in Korea, wind up with names that seem to match. Looking at this energetic, enigmatic eight-year-old child, I didn’t know anything aside from just knowing I liked her, so I named her after my sister. From that day on, she was Sarah.

Over most of the next year, I spent ten hours a week with her class. Eighteen little kids, me, and a dusty old blackboard doing our EFL thing two and a half hours per class, four days a week. They drove me crazy sometimes, as a horde of small people is apt to do, but I mostly found them to be a delightful gathering of children. There was Sarah, of course, and Candy (the one who gave me the flu), but also kids like Maggie, Adam, Cindy, and Yoyo. Maggie was the brightest in the class, the one who would grasp a new word or grammar rule far before everyone else, occasionally leading the class in epiphany with a single word of Chinese that brought the rest of the kids spontaneously to understanding. Adam had a great attitude and worked harder than most. When he got things wrong or did poorly on a spelling quiz, he didn’t take it personally, only worked hard to do better the next time around. Cindy was an animated stick-figure of a girl, the kind of kid who had shot up in height so quickly that it had the same sort of effect  as pulling on a Stretch Armstrong, exaggerating vertical proportions in a near-comical way. Yoyo had trouble with language sometimes, but had such great spirit. One day, he came in while I was grading tests and listening to music. He asked if he could hang out, essentially, instead of taking a nap with the rest of the kids. I said fine, and he proceeded to go about the classroom in some hybrid of dance and martial arts movements that demonstrated a kinesthetic genius. It remains one of the best things I’ve ever seen.

The class was full of great kids. Sarah was my favorite, though. Rarely have I encountered children so full of spontaneous joy. Her laugh was contagious and her happy energy rubbed off on the kids around her. On many occasions, I thought to myself that, if I were ever to have a daughter, I hoped she’d be like Sarah (I still hope this). It came as a shock when we did a unit talking about age and I discovered that her father was not only close to my age, but only about a month different. While I had academically known that, in my late twenties, I could certainly be a father, it became far more real of a thing when I realized that all these kids in front of me were the age that my own kid would be, had I started a family right out of university.

Leaving a teaching job has never been easy, and I have always missed students quite a bit, both kids and adults. Leaving that particular class in Taiwan was the hardest of all, though, and I still sometimes wonder about those kids. I wish I knew how they were doing. I certainly hope they’re all doing well. It was saying goodbye to that class that had me in tears in the bathroom, getting to know a new kind of sadness. I hadn’t expected it to be that hard. I had underestimated how much those kids had become a part of my life. I am not a father, but I realize now that I had become a part-time father figure to many of them, and they part-time children of my own. It was a new experience, and one that remains unique.

My sister has since had a daughter, making me an uncle. I’ve met my niece once, and there’s a picture of me in Tokyo from when they visited a year ago, holding the first baby I ever actually thought was cute. My sister sends pictures and videos every week, and I love it. I’d rather see her grow up in person, of course, but I’ll take what I can get. Watching this tiny girl grow from a distance has made the idea of having kids less strange than ever, though still very far away. I’m presently at the stage of attempting to date again, and to be perfectly honest, I’m not doing very well so far. When I find myself tweaking my OK Cupid profile on a Friday night while sitting in my studio apartment in Tokyo, and then check Facebook to see posts by old friends who are married with a house and kids and all that back in the USA, it often feels like my life is impossibly different. Doubt creeps in, as well, and I wonder if I’ll ever find the sort of person who will want to be with me as much as I want to be with her, the sort of person with whom I’d be eager to reproduce. Even now, writing this, just the idea of meeting someone who makes me come alive seems only fantasy.

I’m not here to be all morose and dejected, though. I know from experience that those people to whom we most strongly react typically come out of left field and I very well may meet her later today or some time this week. Doubt comes and goes, and I stubbornly press on, as one must. I know that if I keep trying, in time I will meet someone special. We will build something spectacular together. Who knows, we may even have kids together. And if we have a daughter, I may well name her Sarah.

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