“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”
Beware the power of names.
At some point in your life, especially if you decide to procreate or to accept some other lesser posting of absolute authority, you might be called upon to name something. Do not take to the office lightly.
Naming a thing gives you a strange and irretractible kind of power over it. This is why, whether or not a delegated alias abides, it is, in its own way, capable of rearranging that thing permanently.
It’s why we call it “Istanbul,” and not “Constantinople.”
It’s why there are a zillion little “Leopolds” still running around in the Congo, calling out “Hello, Master!” to every white man who braves the trenches that far inland.
It’s why crushed countries are so speedily recast in the chosen nommes de guerres of their conquerors, and it is why the people of those places so promptly seek warmth around the familiar fires of those cast-away appellations as soon as they’ve throw off the colonial shackles.
And it’s also why, although I love to travel, I would make a most terrible diplomat.
When I moved to Seoul, South Korea, to run an after-school elementary English program in 2005, one of my first tasks was to rechristen my 160 students with brand-new, English-language names.
The commission felt vaguely God-like. Or at least Presidential, and I took it seriously. Like any teacher, I was, in a sense, building my own little nation, populated with my own, tiny people, but these subjects would forewith be called upon only by the names I saw fit.
That seemed important, somehow, and though I’d determined to use my powers for good and not for evil, I chose not to accept feedback from my little army of as-yet-to-be-named plebeians when it came time for the actual naming of names.
I’d seen the Law of Unintended Consequences play out already in the classrooms of my English-teaching brethren: Korean kids, when allowed to pick their own English monikers, inevitably ended up choosing for themselves words like “Milk,” or “Killer,” or “Kid,” or “Park Bench.” (Those are real-life examples.)
No way. This was my show, and I’d have no truck with democracy.
Not that I didn’t try my hardest to conjure up sweet-sounding, all-American appellations befitting each tiny, nervous Korean child who stepped to the front of my room on that first day of class.
Many had never met an American person up-close before, and they cowered giddily beneath my raised dry-erase marker as I put pen to board and scribbled out, with great pomp and fanfare, each brand new name.
The first few dozen came easy, and my subjects seemed pleased.
I was working from a mental list of people I’d known and enjoyed the company of in the recent past. When that ran short, I summoned the names of immediate family, and then of beloved classmates from high school.
Soon, though, the protesting began. It quickly became clear that my students were judging the relative goodness or un-goodness of each English name in accordance with a set of standards that had absolutely nothing to do with American pop culture, or even with the English language.
Girls jostled to be called “Hannah,” because it sounded like the Korean word for the number one. I relented, and so ended up with three Hannahs in three different grades. Fair enough.
Boys duked it out to be called “Ron.” I never figured out why. Again, fair enough. Two Rons it was. I had a kind, easy-going uncle by the same name back home, and I hoped some of those tractable vibes might magically transfer over.
Conversely, perfectly reasonable names were greeted with complete horror: Maggie, because it sounded like the word for “fish.” Paul, because it sounded like the word for “foot.”
I pressed onward, ignoring the complaints.
By mid-afternoon of that first day, my brain had started to feel fuzzy, like it was wearing an itchy, two-sizes-too-small, worsted-wool sweater. The need was just so great! A full 160 subjects were looking to me for a Western alias, and all the legitimization that came with it.
I’d torn by then through my internal roster of classic American sobriquets – that old John-Matt-Mark biblical reel, the names of extended family members, of distant friends and ex-friends and then friends of friends. And there were still 40 students left.
Losing steam, I turned to TV sitcoms.
My third-grade class was reimagined into the cast of the first season of “Beverly Hills, 90210”: Brenda, Steve, Kelly, Brandon and Dylan and Nat took their places before me.
Fourth grade was home to half the original residents of “Melrose Place,” plus three out of the four “Golden Girls.” (I deemed the name “Dorothy” far too baffling for their tiny tongues, so desperately flummoxed by the nonsense trio of “T-H-Y.”)
By last class, I was scraping the bottom of the barrel, and it showed.
A second-grade boy who farted copiously and refused to come out from under the table would theretofore be known as “Marvin.”
After Marvin, a cherubic little guy stepped forward to face me, his hands trembling and his hair askew. His classmates leaned forward in their seats, riveted.
I frantically scanned my jumbled brain for some forgotten television show. And, like magic, the theme song from the ‘80s sitcom “Perfect Strangers” switched on in my head.
I lovingly recalled this beloved Wednesday Night childhood institution, which tracked the antics of Larry, a neurotic tightwad Chicagoan; and Balky, a quirky, loveable Eastern European who, through a series of goofy misunderstandings, becomes his roommate.
I looked down at my miniscule charge, and I christened him, “Balky.”
The class erupted in joyful approval.
After Balky, a runty first grader with a crew cut and little round Harry Potter glasses stepped forward. He was hopping from one foot to the other and blinking incessantly in a manner that seemed very Larry-esque.
“Your English name is … Larry!”
I announced this with great pomp, then paused for the requisite applause from the peanut gallery. Silence.
As I’d done for the others, I wrote out the letters of Larry’s name on a plastic clippy tag and handed it to him.
He grimaced, then his tiny mouth puckered into an “O” as he struggled with the letters.
His classmates giggled. Larry groaned in protest and shook his head at me in a universal gesture of “Pleasedon’tdothistome!”
The dismay and confusion were probably warranted. The Korean language combines the consonants “R” and “L” into a single letter: “Rieul” (ㄹ). Its sound exists somewhere between the two English sounds, and it’s why you’ll occasionally spot “Dry Creaners,” and “Flied lice” joints in US cities boasting large Korean populations. It’s not their fault! It’s a gap of linguistics.
This burdensome English name had both an “L,” and not one but two rolling, rollicking “Rs” contained within its mere five letters. Asking a Korean kid to call himself “Larry” was the equivalent of hacking a “W” in two, shoving it into the middle of a name like “Sam,” and handing it to some poor American kid on the other side of the pond.
I was in the midst of reconsidering, but just then the sixth period bell rang. In a flurry of toppled chairs, crumpled papers, and left-behind chopsticks, my last class poured out the door and into the hallway. Including Larry, evidently resigned to his fate. The thing was done.
I collapsed into a little yellow chair, out of breath and craving a cigarette, my task complete. During the seventh period, I rested. I looked upon what I had built. And I saw that it was good enough.
In the Confucian social structure, learning is lauded as a paramount achievement in life, and a person’s fate is thought to be determined by a combination of luck, virtue and education.
As September bled into October, a few things became sadly clear about Larry’s particular portion of fate. For starters, the kid’s social deficiencies were legion, and most of them were clearly his mother’s fault. During lunch hour, the other mothers would drop off little compartmentalized meal boxes, kiss their babies goodbye, and then perhaps pause momentarily in the hallway to exchange a snippet or two of gossip. Not Larry’s mother. She’d camp out on a plastic chair at his side and feed him little quail eggs, the trainer chopsticks perched daintily in her long-suffering hands. She dabbed at his face with a napkin like he was a little prince, and she sometimes refused to leave until after the bell for class had already rung. Even then, she’d often stand outside the closed door, peering in through the glass partition for another 10 minutes or so.
Larry struggled to fit in with his classmates. He cried too much, and when he wasn’t crying, he was usually whining. He scribbled on other people’s papers, chewed on erasers, and never paid attention to anything but games. And even those he sort of hated.
Once, he became so unhinged after his team lost a competitive spelling contest that his mother called my boss and demanded that we eliminate all games with winners and losers from the curriculum.
I was forced to comply, much to the outrage of my 159 other students. Somehow, the kids figured out that Larry was behind the moratorium, and they rejected him even more. His English name didn’t help, but really, I decided, it was just the latest nail in a coffin his own society had been constructing for him since nursery school. It wasn’t my fault.
By the last Friday in October, the second-graders had graduated to studying tone and emotion adjectives – Bored! Funny! Scary! – and things were headed downhill fast.
In the workbook, each adjective was accompanied by a drawing of a monster emoting the corresponding feeling. The Yeti was unamused. The two-headed alien was tickled. The Sasquatch was terrified.
As usual, Larry was paying no attention to the lesson. He was engrossed, instead, with sharpening each one of his pencils down to the grainy nub. I warned him. I really did. But eventually, my patience ran out and I handed down a punishment specially calibrated to appeal to Korean collectiveness:
“Larry! If I have to tell you to pay attention one more time, everyone at table two loses a sticker!”
This didn’t sit well with the other residents of table two, who had grown weary of Larry’s antics, not to mention the inveterate piles of eraser and pencil shavings that marked the boundaries of his seat. Most deeply offended was Mike: unusually tall, unusually smart, and unusually well liked by teachers and students alike. He was the anti-Larry, and he knew it.
Mike stood up and he raised his hand.
“Teacher! Teacher!” he cried, waving his 10 fingers frantically about.
Then, when he had everyone’s attention, Mike made his pronouncement: “Ra-ry is a scary monster!”
The class blew up with screams and shouts of laughter. I saw the hurt and rage in poor Larry’s eyes as he tipped back in his chair, curled his tiny fists into little white meatballs and began to hyperventilate. And I felt awful.
“Ashhhhh!” he screamed. “ASHHHHHHHHH!”
I ran over to try and calm him, but it was too late.
Larry’s body shook. Larry’s face went from pink to red to purple to green. Larry opened his mouth.
And then Larry rage-vomited. All over the table, all over the floor, and all over himself.
His tablemates screamed. Led by Mike, they fled en masse, pressing themselves up against the far wall and scurrying beneath neighboring tables in a desperate attempt to escape the noxious smell.
I screamed, too. I’ve always had a thing about puke, like sort of a phobia, so I did what any lousy leader would do: I ran straight out of the classroom, leaving my students to navigate the chaos on their own. I tore down the hall and pounded desperately on the door of the Korean teacher in the next classroom down.
I begged her for assistance.
“There’s puke, like, everywhere!” I shrieked, practically hyperventilating myself. “HELP ME!”
She sighed, then followed me down the hall and into my classroom with a box of tissues and a disinfecting spray bottle. And, while I stood and watched, she cleaned up Larry’s mess. My mess.
When the job was finished, I opened the classroom windows as far as they would go and ordered the somewhat subdued Larry and all my other second-graders back to their seats, feeling more relieved than guilty.
I let the students color in Yetis and aliens for the last 20 minutes of class. I breathed through my mouth. I felt entirely depleted and defeated. Fuck diplomacy! Fuck nation-building! Leave the naming of names to those with stronger constitutions and weaker gag reflexes, I decided. I was simply not cut out for this stuff.
The next day, Larry’s mother approached me before class, pulling a recalcitrant Larry behind her. She had a tiny bottle of from-concentrate orange juice in one hand. She was grinning.
“I’m sorry Larry made you a surprise,” she sang, pressing the chilled bottle into my hand.
I accepted the juice, but I could not return her smile. Not even for pretends.
Perhaps all of this was my fault. I felt terrible for Larry. I really did. But bad as I felt for him, I felt still sorrier for myself. The crown upon my head grew heavier by the day. So unpopular was I that the janitor wouldn’t even clean my classroom or turn on the heat for me. Not to mention that kids were quitting the program left and right, we were behind in workbooks, and flu season was only just beginning. I felt like giving up.
There’s a thing about benevolence that no one ever tells you – it’s like eating half a 12-inch sub. Smoking half a cigarette. You feel virtuous in the immediate aftermath, giddy with restraint, but that self-denial high wears off in a few dozen minutes and then you’re patting your pockets, looking for the evil rest of it.
It occurred to me that afternoon, as I watched Larry’s Mother lovingly pinch a boy-sized bite of homemade kimchi onto a boy-sized pair of chopsticks and gently nudge it toward Larry’s opened, waiting mouth, that I had turned out to be worst kind of ruler: one who smirkingly wields the dull axe of power when the troops are neatly and expectantly amassed and basks in the warm glow of power, but ultimately lacks the decisiveness or empathy to address adversity in any meaningful way, to really lead anyone to anywhere worth going.
We are selfish, grasping creatures to the end. At least, I am. When things get stinky, I head for the halls.
And that is why I’d make a shitty diplomat.