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Honoring Your Identity Empowers The Mind by Antonietta McGoey


My name is Antonietta. Not Antoinette. Not Annette. Not Anna. And definitely not Antennae! (That’s what the bullies in middle school called me.) I was named after my father, Antonio. In an Italian family, children’s names honor the parents’ parents and other relatives. The first son usually gets the name of the father’s father. But when I was born, I was the last of six children and my mother had already paid her dues to all the grandparents and even one of my father’s brothers. She was out of ideas for names. And so, I stayed nameless, in the hospital, for the first three days of my life. The nurses told my mom if she didn’t give me a name that they would! That’s when my father said, “Why don’t you name her after me?” And so, I am “little Antonio”, or Antonietta.


Having a non-English name can be challenging when you are navigating through life in America. People want to take a shortcut. They want something easy. They want to know your nickname. Or they will bestow one upon you.


Growing up I was called many variations of my name. Everyone mispronounces it. It’s rare when someone does pronounce it correctly. And when that happens, it’s like a breath of fresh air!

I remember hearing actress Uzo Aduba speak about her name. Her full first name is “Uzoamaka,” which means “the road is good.” (Please listen to her speak about it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTPC73SdRkA) When Uzoamaka was young she asked her mother if she could change her name to “Zoe.” Her mother, in her Nigerian accent, asked, “Why?” It was because no one could pronounce her name. Her mother said, “If people can learn to say “Michaelangelo” and “Dostoevsky” then they can learn how to say, “Uzoamaka.”


My father’s nickname for me is “Tonia” or Toni in Italian. My cousin, Antoinette, who gave everyone in our family their nicknames, christened me, “Annie.” But my nickname was only for my family. Never for anyone else.


When I started teaching, I decided to make my professional nickname, “Anne.” And that worked for 6 years. My names were all separate: my legal documents said, “Antonietta,” my work colleagues said, “Anne,” and my family called me, “Annie.” Until one day my sister came to the school where I teach to be a per diem substitute teacher. The entire day she called me “Annie”. My colleagues said that they didn’t know that was my real nickname. I said that only family calls me by that name. After that day, they all called me, “Annie.” No matter what I did to change it, no one took my request seriously. My Assistant Principal began calling me “Annie,” even when they were upset with me! Not even my family would use my nickname in anger! It felt absolutely awful. I felt like I had no power. I felt like a child.


By not hearing my affirmed name spoken, I didn’t feel like myself. And when one does not feel like oneself then the seeds of self-doubt begin to be sown. And when those toxic seeds of self-doubt grow, we begin to think of ourselves as incapable, we feel invisible, and we feel “less than.”


When I heard that Thandie Newton was reclaiming her name, “Thandiwe” I was so excited! There was a way to get my name back! In Thandiwe’s first movie, the director loved her name so much that he made it her character’s name. “Thandiwe” is a beautiful name. It means, “beloved” in Zulu. But the director didn’t tell her that he had changed her billing name in the credits to her nickname so as not to confuse the audience. Her name had been stolen! (Please read her story here: https://www.vogue.co.uk/news/article/thandiwe-newton-interview)


So, when I started speaking on the social audio app, Clubhouse, I decided that I would only be known by my real name, Antonietta. It was liberating! I felt whole again! I felt respected. I felt like a professional. I felt like a mature adult. I felt like me. My name and identity were finally being honored. When I hear my name pronounced properly, it’s like hearing beautiful music. It’s refreshing and it brings me calm.


Then, during quarantine, I was scheduled to speak to the Parents’ Association about the new course I was to teach in the fall. My Principal listed my name as “Annie.” I panicked! Under no circumstances was I going to have my students’ parents ever refer to me as, “Annie!” That was the final motivation I needed to speak up for myself to officially change my name to “Antonietta” at work. However, the name change turned out to be on paper only. My supervisors had a difficult time pronouncing my name and after a few weeks of trying and continually making mistakes, they all went back to calling me “Annie.” I was unsure if I should bring up this matter again. Was I overreacting? Would it be easier to just let the issue go and accept being called by my nickname? Even actress Raven-Symoné went decades without correcting others on the pronunciation of her name. She just let it go. But recently decided that others should know that they have not said her name right all of these years. It is not pronounced “Si-moan” but ”Si-moan-ye.” (Please read about her journey here: https://www.billboard.com/music/music-news/raven-symone-how-to-pronounce-name-tiktok-1235202977/)


This school year I decided to give it one more shot. If teachers were receiving training on how to honor their students’ affirmed names and pronouns, then administrators should do the same with their teachers. When my Principal again referred to me as “Annie,” I emailed her back and asked if she could call me by my proper and affirmed name, “Antonietta.” I wrote, “I would sincerely appreciate it if you and the other administrators would call me by my full first name instead of my nickname. It would mean a lot to me. It is pronounced: Ann-toe-knee-etta. Thank you so much!” She responded right away, “I am sorry about your name - I was using what I thought was your preferred name - Antonietta is absolutely beautiful and I'm glad I get to use it!” Since then, all the administrators have called me “Antonietta.” And it feels wonderful!


If this is how I feel as a 46-year-old woman. Can you imagine how a child feels?! Can you imagine the validation they will feel? Can you imagine the joy they will feel? When children are honored with respect for their identity by first pronouncing their name properly, their parasympathetic nervous system begins to calm them down and they begin to feel safe. When students feel safe, they begin to trust. When students trust the teachers in their life, then they allow themselves to be vulnerable, honest, and open. With vulnerability, honesty, and openness comes strong human relationships and deep connection and understanding. It’s finally at this point that students’ brains are in the optimal position to learn.


According to The Indigo Approach by Melissa Perkins, when it comes to knowledge, we are already intelligent: “We are Soul and inherently intellectually gifted. Intelligence cannot be measured; only acknowledged.” (principal 1, five declarations of intellectual existence, key 1) We are already, “Soul.”
Therefore, if we are allowed to be our authentic selves by celebrating our identities, cultures, and humanity, then learning is as natural to us as breathing. When we honor our identities, then we empower our minds and ourselves.
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