It is estimated that nearly half of school age children in NYC public schools come from households where the primary language is not English. That’s not surprising considering how many residents are foreign born. In 2018, new immigrants who came to America arrived predominantly from China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines, unlike in the early part of the last century when most immigrants came from Europe – like my Greek parents.
As a retired New York City teacher, who taught from the 70’s through the 90’s of the last century, I remember the controversies regarding multicultural, bilingual and ESL programs. The rush to implement professional development for teachers was like climbing a ziggurat of languages and cultures that would rival the biblical Tower of Babel. The training became mandatory to earn and maintain certification. To fill the staffing gaps, the city hired teachers from South America, Central America, and Spain to meet the need for Spanish-speaking bilingual and ESL teachers. There was also a need for Albanian and Ghanian teachers who could teach bilingual classes. One Bronx high school had 35 students from central Africa who spoke Twi. Federal guidelines required the school to hire a licensed bi-lingual teacher exclusively for these students. They found him in Brooklyn. Yet, while schools struggled and reached out to parents and community leaders, the students remained unperturbed, and like the droves of immigrants who came before them, they caught on quickly and found a way to assimilate and become American.
I remember an Asian youngster who had been in this country for only a few months coming into class sporting an ‘X’ baseball hat. Did he really know about Malcolm X? This attempt at assimilation, whether it was a conscious choice or not, sends a complicated message. It is a symbol of the desire to transform the outward identity of the individual. Much simpler and a more common way to avoid seeming ‘foreign’, students often take on an alternative English first name.
As a second generation Greek-American, my primary language at home was Greek. I didn’t speak much English until after I started public school and learned how to read. Back then, in the years following World War II, when European students felt a similar need to assimilate, one small step to becoming American was changing your first name. Some Greek children had it easy because their names easily morphed into English like Gianni, Giorgos, Anthony and Andreas. But some names would not easily roll off the tongues of English speakers like Haralambros, Dimitrios, Chrysostomos, Athanasios, or Panagiotis. To avoid derisive epithets, and to fit in with the crowd, most found some English variations of their original names. Ajax became Jack, Vasili became Willy, and the rest of the names that memorialized grandfathers turned into Tom, Harry, Jim, Sam, Peter, and Charley.
Girls transformed their names, too. The obvious names like Maria, Christina, Anna, and Eleni didn’t have to undergo any significant metamorphosis. But girls who had names like Ourania, Polyxenia, Persephoni, Zephyria, Kiriaki, and Ipakoi had to be more imaginative. New names like Ronnie, Pauline, Susie, Betty, Kiki, and Chris were often used. Some made sense and others like Penny, Poppy, and Dusty were a stretch. Because of this we lived in a state of schizophrenia because we answered to both names. When we spoke with the family, however, we never called Despina, Dusty or Persephone, Penny. These Americanizations were open secrets among our friends, but we never crossed the cultural divide by using the neighborhood name at home, especially when conversing with Yiayias.
During my years as a teacher in Queens, I witnessed the same phenomenon as waves of new students entered the public school system. One day, in the middle of a lesson, a guidance counselor’s note asked me to send Chandramanjit down to the office. I sent the monitor back claiming that there was no one by that name in my class. In a few minutes, the same monitor was back with another note asking me to double check. Impatiently, I asked the class if there was a Chandramanjit present. I was embarrassed to see a pretty girl, who called herself Cherry, raise her hand.
I had completely forgotten her ‘official’ name and was so accustomed to her chosen name, the name she used when turning in assignments and the name we used in class, that I was surprised to be reminded of her actual name. Yet, l should have known because I was familiar with these transformations – she after all was only doing what most first and second generation immigrant children do to navigate through a foreign culture on the journey to becoming American.
Today with such diversity in our area – 800 languages said to be spoken in New York City – and so many immigrant children in our schools, Rajiv naturally becomes Ray, Li-jing easily translates to Linda, She Way somehow morphs into Edward, and Hanif takes on the moniker of Hank.
So, Achilles, Lefteris, Evridiki, Eleftheria, and Sarantos meet Chandramanjit, She Way, Hanif, Jayanthi, and Ha-Yoon. You all are on the road to becoming American.
Bill Stamatis is a retired NYC teacher living on Long Island. He has written for various outdoor and technology publications. A version of this article first appeared in The New York Teacher in 1992.