One of the hardest things about family work is actually not getting the family members to trust you. It’s not getting people to see that what they experienced as childhood was actually abuse and neglect. It’s not tracking people down when they really have no interest in working with you.
It’s remembering all those damn names.
I have twelve families on my caseload. That includes forty children. I know what my mother would say. “When I was in kindergarten, there were 90 kids in my class. We had a 20 year old nun; she knew all our names and had us perfectly in line by the end of the day.”
Since I’m not allowed to smack my kids with rulers (actually, we can’t afford rulers. Budget cuts.) things are a bit more difficult. Especially since no one seems to have just one name.
Nicknames. They get applied to you as a kid, and so often haunt you throughout life. (Just ask my cousin Scooter.) My family members still often refer to me by my childhood nickname, a popular candy bar that shall go unnamed. That name started for me when I was about four. I screamed whenever anyone called me that for about a week, then I got used to it. My parents, aunts, and cousins called me that off and on, until I graduated high school and it became something that only gets broken out occasionally. Unfortunately, sometimes on Facebook.
The families I work with do things differently. It seems like some people write one name on the birth certificate, then instantly develop a deep hatred for it, declaring that it is never to be used again. I get a referral with everybody’s names on it, but I never know what I’ll actually be walking into. It’s happened more times than I can count–I ask about a certain child I’ve never met, referring to them by their given name, and everyone in the room looks at me like I just asked if they’ve seen Batman anywhere.
I have a family of six children that excels at this. When I first met them, I asked about the three year old. We’ll call her Molly. (Like it matters, they’ll just make something else up next week.) I got that confused look from the family.
Mom: “Molly? Who?”
SJ: “Oh, I’m sorry, maybe this is wrong. What’s your youngest’s name?”
SJ: “Oh, OK. I wonder how that happened.”
Sister: “Ma, wasn’t that her name on the birth certificate?”
Mom: “Yeah, but your father and I hated that name. I still haven’t gotten around to changing it.
Well, such a little thing. I wouldn’t bother.
It wasn’t easier with the other five kids.
“Then we have Christine.”
“Oh, ChiChi! She’s in the bathroom.”
“Denny. Soccer practice”
“Mama! Where is she?”
“Papa. I think he’s down the hall. PAPA! GET IN HERE!”
It’s funny that sometimes an entirely different name can be considered a nickname. Not a shortened version, like “Robert” to “Bob.” Just a different name. I used to volunteer at a sleepaway camp forkids in foster care, and one of my girls was registered under the name “Christine.” But we weren’t to call her that. Her nickname was “Jessica.”
All right. Whatever you want, sweetheart.
Another parent came to pick up their child, Joseph. We brought her to three different Josephs, until we realized that she was looking for our Miguel.
This was a particularly pronounced problem when I worked in a neighborhood center with a large afterschool program. Things were chaotic as it was, and the place was a drop in center, meaning some kids would come by for an afternoon of ping-pong once, and then never be seen again. Memorizing names wasn’t a possibility with everyone. But I think I did pretty well.
Until one day, when a child I’d never met showed up about halfway through program. He told me he was there to pick up his little cousin. His cousin’s name? “FatFat.”
I’m sorry. Hit me with that again.
But I had heard correctly. I didn’t know FatFat. I asked if he had another name. Anything else. A last name? The kid stared at me blankly. “He’s FatFat.”
OK, first of all, that’s terrible. Second of all, the older cousin was about ten years old. I think he should have the concept of surnames down. I had no other choice but to let him go wander the building, and let him take a six year old of his choosing home.
Don’t worry, the kid he picked did, in fact, answer to FatFat.
Is there a worse name than that? Some nicknames are just atrocious. One of my teens was born on Thanksgiving, and she just revealed to me, through gritted teeth, that her family calls her “Pavita,” a diminutive of “turkey” because of this. It’s hard when you realize you can’t scold kids for teasing the fat kid, when her entire family, mother included, calls her “Gorda.”
What are the rules, exactly? Can you just make up a name for yourself? One pre-k student tried it. We had a boy and a girl in the same class, both names Adrian. Since no one in the neighborhood actually goes by their given name, we figured it would be reasonable to ask both kids if either of them have a nickname they preferred to go by. Little girl Adrian told us, “You can call me J.Lo.”
We checked with her mom. No one called her that. But nice try, kid. Well played.
A friend I worked with got so exasperated that he decided that we were to all call him “Cuppy” from then on. “You know, because I’m always drinking out of cups. That’s how this works?”
I don’t quite understand why deciphering nicknames, who they apply to and sometimes what they mean to people, is such a part of my work. I think the right answer is that it’s cultural, and the SJ answer is that people are doing it to make my life more difficult.
Let’s just get back to normal, Christian names. Come on. It will be much less confusing.