What is in a Name?

November 21, 2011 at 1:05 pm (Uncategorized)

“Colter, Colter, Colter. His name is Colter.” I muttered this refrain as I drove down the hill to Andrew’s elementary school.

I was on my way to lead literature circle for the advanced second and third grade readers. It was my third week of meeting with these bright and funny kids to teach them the basics of discussing books.

Even though all of my previous teaching experience was with junior college and adult creative writing classes, I thought I was doing pretty well. Andrew had told me so. “You’re good at getting us to talk about Ralph S. Mouse,” he said at dinner the previous evening. My heart swelled. I was doing right by my kid.

“Except for one big thing,” Andrew said.

I swallowed.

“You keep calling Colter the wrong name. You called him George four times today. It’s getting really embarrassing.”

It’s true. Colter and George had both been in Andrew’s class last year.* George had graduated to the fourth and fifth grade Montessori class this year, but Colter and Andrew are still classmates. I have Colter—not George—in my literature circle. I have never taught George. Colter and George don’t even sound similar, do they? The boys looked nothing like each other. And yet, I kept calling Colter “George” during our literature circle. I knew all the other kids’ names—all 7 of them. I could call Emma “Emma” without a problem, not transposing her with Olivia or Eleanor. But I had this thing with Colter. No matter how many times he corrected me, or the other kids corrected me, I called him George.

This had to stop. What was I doing to Colter’s developing self-esteem? Would he complain to his parents about the insane teacher who insists his name his George?

I would practice. I would drill it into my brain that Colter, Colter, Colter, Colter, Colter—not George¬— was in the group. He always sat two seats to my left around the circular conference table. Colter sits two seats to my left. Colter has luminous brown eyes. Colter speaks quietly. Colter is usually on track in our discussions.

I said Colter at least 300 times on my way to school. I let the feel of the name—Colter—slide around my mouth and brain. It’s a nice name, Colter. Say it a few hundred times and you’ll appreciate it even more.

I ushered the kids from the literature circle down the hallway to the conference room where we met twice a week. I handed out their copies of Ralph S. Mouse. I made sure the “Discussion Director” for the day was ready with questions to ask the group. I reviewed my notes while the kids got to the right page. Emma asked her first question. “Why does Ralph get so angry at Ryan about running the maze?” Everyone’s hand shot up. My eyes settled on Colter. I deliberately lengthened the pause between making eye contact with him and saying his name. I will get it right. His name is Colter. I felt his name in my mouth again. Our eyes locked. I smiled. I had nailed it. “Why don’t you tell us what you think…George.”

Andrew—who never passes up an opportunity for melodrama—dropped his head onto the table with a loud thunk, and groaned, “Mooooooom.” The girls tittered. Colter smiled, but wouldn’t look up from his paper.

“I’m so sorry, Colter,” I said. “I have a hard time with names. I won’t let it happen again.”

He kept staring at his paper—steadfastly not making eye contact. With the group’s help, we picked up the shards of the discussion and plodded back into the book’s plot and themes.

Keeping names straight has never been a strength of mine, but this is ridiculous. Knowing that it wasn’t entirely my fault didn’t really help. My misnaming Colter was part of a larger pattern of memory loss, aphasia (an impairment of language ability), and overall mental fogginess that is one of the most irritating side-effects of chemotherapy. I do just fine with language if it’s written, rather than spoken. When I can take my time, correct my mistakes, and not feel pressured, I don’t have problems. Unfortunately, most communication doesn’t occur in front of a keyboard—with a handy backspace button to let me fix my mistakes. If I had been writing to Colter, I would certainly have gotten his name right.

Post-chemotherapy cognitive impairment—or “chemo brain”—affects some 30 percent of people who undergo chemotherapy. The white coats aren’t sure why chemotherapy causes foggy memory and bungled words, but there’s new evidence to back up the stories of millions of chemo survivors like me who swear that something’s gone wrong with our memories. A new study out of Stanford shows measurable differences in the brain scans of those suffering post-chemo cognitive woes.

While it’s nice to know there’s a reason for my memory gaps and mis-speaking problems (because there’s always a voice in my head telling me I’m either crazy or manufacturing problems), it’s not a solution. My tenuous hold on better health seems to depend on my monthly infusions of Rituxan, a chemotherapy agent developed to treat lymphoma. Whether the culprit is the Rituxan—or the massive doses of Cytoxan that probably haven’t yet cleared my system—I can’t say. But I’m certainly not about to quit Rituxan to test its impact on my memory.

The far-reaching effect of these hard-hitting drugs boggles my mind. I don’t think anyone understands them all. They knock out diseases, yes—and for this I am grateful. But it’s kind of creepy that after surviving nearly 2 years’ of Cytoxan, I’ve totally lost my taste for steak and my hair changed its color and texture. When I mentioned this to the doctor and asked why my once straight blonde hair was now curly and red, he said in an off-hand way, “Chemo changes your DNA.” What else has it silently and irrevocably altered within me?

I fretted over the Colter/George problem all that day. I knew that it wasn’t such a big deal. And yet, it felt deeply emblematic of how out-of-control the entire disease and treatment process can sometimes be. Not being able to call a 7-year old by the right name—especially after practicing and worrying about it—seemed more significant than the other chemo word-bungles I’d survived, like asking Andrew one time if he liked “Kenfucky Fried Chicken,” never being able to remember any of Jay’s co-workers’ names, or falling into what I had always (gently) mocked as my mom’s weird habit of being wholly unable to remember the titles of books she just read or movies she’d just seen.

I talked about it with Andrew that night. I told him that I felt horrible for calling Colter George—again. Although I usually try to shelter Andrew from my ongoing struggles with sarcoidosis and its treatment, I confessed to him that I thought the issue was chemo brain. I told him how I had problems remembering things and that even though I had practiced Colter’s name, I’d still messed it up.

“Mommy, it’s OK. You are a really good teacher. You should just tell Colter that you have chemo brain.”

I laughed.

“No, you should explain to him that it’s not about him, that it’s your brain not working.”

The clarity of children is startling sometimes. Why not tell Colter? Why drag around my embarrassment like a sack of stones?

The next time I showed up to lead literature circle, it was as if the universe had manufactured an opportunity for a one-on-one moment with Colter. All the other kids were caught up finishing a project, except for Colter, who emerged alone into the hallway.

“Hey Colter,” I said. “How are you today?”

“I’m good,” he said, to his shoes.

I kneeled down so that I could be at his level. He raised his eyes to my throat. That was progress.

“I want to apologize, Colter, for calling you George all the time. It’s not your fault. I’m taking some medicine that mixes up my memory. Sometimes the name George comes out of my mouth, even when I’m thinking of you as Colter.”

He said nothing and kept his gaze at my necklace.

“I’m going to keep working on it, Colter. I just want you to know that I feel bad because you are such a special part of the literature group. It’s just this stupid medicine…. ”

My words ran out. I sensed the approach of the other kids. I felt like I’d bungled my little speech. I wanted to cry. I certainly did not feel qualified to be teaching these kids today.

My gaze fell back on Colter. He was looking at me. His eyes were bright and kind. He smiled.

“It’s OK. I don’t mind,”

“Oh, thank you, Colter.”

“George and I are friends. I like the name George.”

The seven other kids exploded into the hallway. Colter led the way to the conference table. And for one, small moment, I was sure of myself and the pathways of my mind.

When we were all settled, I turned to Colter, who was discussion director for the day.

“OK, Colter,” I said. “Take it away.”

* I have changed all the kids’ names to protect their privacy, except for Andrew, who has the misfortune to be the child of a memoir writer and blogger.


  1. Rayna said,

    Such a beautiful little story. Kids are the best! The Literature Circle sounds lovely and I think it’s so fantastic that your taking a step out of your “comfort zone” to lead it. Those kids sure are lucky to have you and Andrew around….

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Thank you, Rayna, Kids are indeed the best. As I said to Leanne (below), I make the mistake of underestimating their capacity for empathy. But they are patient with me.

      I really appreciate your reading and commenting.

      Send my love to Isaac and Dov…


  2. Allyson said,

    As a teacher of elementary age kids I learned that honesty is best with them. They respect you for it because you have shown respect for them. I love Andrew’s gentle advising of you, and I love Colter’s acceptance. Great essay!

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Glad you liked it Allyson,

      You got it–honesty is best with the short set. They can sniff out dishonesty, “glossing” over the truth, etc. I’m lucky to have Andrew in my life to keep me real.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.


  3. Leanne Shirtliffe said,

    Okay, I’m crying. Again. Love that kids get it. Love that neither you nor Andrew underestimated George/Colton/Colter…

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Yes! Kids get it, and I get reminded of this so often. My instinct is to underestimate them, which isn’t good for them or me. Let’s hope George/Colton/Colter/whatever that kid’s name is remains copacetic with me getting his name wrong.

      Thanks for reading. I’m glad today’s post resonated with you.


  4. Paul said,

    What can i say – Sarc head, Brain fog, stupid chemo thicko* head …..This is Chronic Town

    But seriously – Another great post

    * Us Aussies use thicko as ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’ in a friendly sort of way

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Hi Paul,

      Thicko is the perfect word to describe the pea-soup sludge that masquerades as brain function for me these days.

      Here’s a great example of my thicko head. Andrew has gotten me to use wii fit with him. It’s always a treat. It calculates my wii fit age as 54 and makes a sad little face whenever I do poorly at the demonic balancing/bending/throwing/perching on the board activities. So, Andrew and I will have a wii fit snowball fight, and the machine will say, “I guess snowball fighting isn’t your strong suit” while sad music plays. The other day, Andrew found a memory test. You had to remember numbers and bend down if a number was higher or lower (I can’t remember the parameters). I did it. When I finished, the sad voice intoned, “I guess memory isn’t your strong suit.” Indeed! Stupid wii.

      Glad you liked the post.


  5. Marianne said,

    This is a great post. It sounds like you are doing a great job teaching this class – and not just about literature.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      I’m trying. Teaching is good for getting me out of my head–and the chatter of all the voices in there telling me what’s I’m doing wrong. It looks like I might be able to start working on creative writing with the kids at Smith. That will be awesome-and also get my creative juices going, I think (hope).

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.


  6. nan said,

    There is a wonderful boost when you let the honesty of children flow – glad to see you writing and living. Thinking of you – n

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