A Rose by Any Other Name…
Names can say a lot about us. Even though our parents did not choose for us the way J.K. Rowling did for her characters (you could think that the parents of Remus Lupin were asking for their child to be bitten by a werewolf), they still had their reasons for calling us what they did. The very same moment they gave us a gift and a burden. Certain names speak of ethnic identity, class, religious affiliation, not to forget gender (in Germany a name MUST be unequivocally male or female*). When we hear somebody’s name, we form an image and the image for “Keisha” is different from the image for “María” or the image for “Jennifer”. And with each image, our own prejudices and biases sneak in. We may subconsciously judge a student from a list of names before we’ve ever seen them.
The most prominent example for Germany would be “Kevin”. This might be strange for anybody who’s not from Germany, but believe me, when a German teacher sees the name “Kevin” they will draw a deep breath and prepare for a battle. Kevins are not very smart, but also very badly behaved with a tendency towards violence. There’s even the term “Alpha-Kevin” in German youth language meaning “somebody really stupid who believes himself to be the greatest”. It was on the short list for the “Youth Word of the Year” and was rightfully removed because that’s not OK. All of this is, of course, completely unfair to the individual Kevin who’s now getting judged by the 20 previous Kevins. My apologies to all you Kevins reading here. I’m sure you are nice people who never kicked anybody’s head.
So, what’s the thing about Kevins that singles them out? As said before, names tell a lot about us and our parents. In Germany, Kevins (and Justins and Jeremys and Jasons) are not the sons of well educated middle class parents like, you know, teachers usually are themselves. Their parents did not set out to create the personal nemesis of every school teacher alive and this particular combination of letters did not turn a child who might have been a perfectly well behaved Sebastian into Kevin the discipline problem.
As “Kevin” correlates heavily with class so do other attitudes and experiences. Bourdieu’s concept of the Habitus describes “learned habits, bodily skills, styles, tastes, and other non-discursive knowledges that might be said to “go without saying” for a specific group (Bourdieu 1990:66-67)“. Clearly, those things are heavily determined by all the factors already mentioned such as ethnicity, religion, class and gender with the latter two being the most important in the case of “Kevin”. Working class male culture and middle/upper class male culture differ heavily when it comes to the body and the use and acceptance of physical force. Just compare the “typical” sports of boxing versus golf. This doesn’t mean that educated well-off men (and women) are not violent, it is just that they’re further up on the ladder so they can use structural violence without having to rely that much on physical violence, or they can count on others, such as the police to inflict that violence. The Kevins of the world have to fight for themselves. Their bodies and their muscles will play a much heavier role in their ability to earn a living than they will play in the lives of other boys who are expected to go to college from before they are born. (Seriously, I got a onesie for my daughter that said “graduation 20XX”.)
Kevin’s** school experience is often not a pleasant one. Cultural ideas about acceptable behaviour like solving conflicts violently are usually not accepted in school nowadays (though many teachers still turn a blind eye towards bullying) he often finds himself in trouble. Teachers watch Kevins closely. Behaviour that might not get Jakob in trouble will sure do for Kevin. That’s not to say that Kevin is just the innocent victim of teacher bias, but it sure plays a role.
Most likely, Kevin’s parents’ school experience was not a pleasant one either. Class is strongly correlated with education in Germany. Unlike the people who usually become teachers they didn’t like it in school one bit and were glad to be out of it. Quite often they felt unfairly singled out or picked upon by their teachers. Now they’re parents and there are these teachers again. People who are socially their superior (teachers have a high social standing in Germany. Historically “the Teacher” was on the same level as “the Doctor” and “the Mayor” in a village). People who use complicated language and big words and who are at best completely unaware of how alienating and aggressive that can be towards people, constantly reminding them of their inferior position, and who are at worst consciously using this to put those people in their place.
Those are not good conditions for a fruitful parent-teacher cooperation. From the parents’ perspective their son’s behaviour was probably not problematic (boys will be boys) and the teacher is unfairly picking on their innocent little darling. From the teacher’s perspective it’s just another Kevin with those parents.
In the end it’s Kevin who pays the price. He grows up believing himself to be innocently bullied by those evil teachers, a view his parents are reinforcing. His world is permanently at odds. His self-image and people’s reaction never fit. Partly because of the aforementioned reinforcement he gets from his parents, partly because people are already actually prejudiced against him because he is called Kevin. There are many kids not called Kevin who have similar issues, whose parents have a hostile attitude towards teachers and school, but unlike Kevin they get a clean sheet at the start.
What’s the conclusion from all of this? Honestly, I don’t have a good one. Being aware of the prejudices we carry is always a good thing, so maybe this text is mostly to remind myself that no, not every Kevin is the kid you want to trade against a bad cold. So I pass the ball to you:
What d you do to keep your biases and prejudices in check?
Have you found any good ways to establish a fruitful relationship with difficult and hostile parents?
Are there names that make you cringe when found on a class list?
*The most stupid regulation of all times. Not only is it within the judgement of the individual clerk whether “Marion” is male or female, it’s also rendered absurd by the influx of foreign names which might be clearly male or female in the culture of origin but are not communicating that aspect to the vast majority of the population.
**Kevin here is no singular person. It’s more a distilled and generalized description.
Image: Hamachidori, Wikimedia Commons