The REAL Reason I'm Not Taking Your Last Name

For most of my childhood and adolescence, I hated my name.  For nineteen years, from 1st grade through my 3rd year of law school, my first day of school, in every class, each and every year would start off like this:

Teacher: "Good morning class! My name is Mr. Blah-Blah-Blah and this class is called 'Womp-womp-womp.'  I hope you all had a terrific summer because the fun ends now!  So the first thing I need to do is take roll.  Okay, let's see here..."
Since my maiden name began with an "A," I was usually the first person on the roll.  And if I wasn't, it was only because there was some other Nigerian kid in the class whose name began with "Ad."
Teacher (looking at my name at the top of the roll, scrunching up their entire face as if they were constipated, passing a gallstone, or smelling the very potent flatulence a student just released, completely overcome with fear and trembling):  "Whoooooa-ho-ho!  Oh boy...um...WOW.  Uh...MAN!  Not really sure -- uh, not really sure what to do with this one right here.  Is this? This can't be right.  Is this a typo? Is this backwards? I mean, I can't even tell which is the first name and which is the last.  You know, I think I need to put on my reading glasses. Nope, that didn't help. This list must be a mistake.  Hm...okay...well, let's see how to do this.  Geez louise! Why didn't they teach us about this in grad school?! "
At one point, hearing my teachers butcher my first name on the first day of school became so tiresome and painful that I started coming to school early on the first day so I could find them before class to give them a heads up about the phonetic pronunciation of my name to avoid the embarrassment.  Yes, that's right, I would roll up into the teachers' lounge passing out cheat-sheets.  Unfortunately most of them still forgot and I just gave up.

But by the time I met my husband, I'd gained a greater appreciation for my name, its meaning, and found it to be a great conversation piece at schmoozing events.  So when we got engaged I planned on keeping my maiden name as a second middle name.  But that plan was thwarted by the feds, specifically the Social Security Administration (SSA).  Shortly after our wedding in Maryland, we returned home to North Carolina and I happily strolled up to a local SSA office to change my name. And it felt like the first day of school all over again:
Humble Civil Servant: "E'scue me miss! Yo name too long!"
Me: "I beg your pardon?"
HCS: "I! SAID! YO! NAME! TOO! LOOOOOOOONG! It won' fit onna card! You needa sho'tin it!"
And thus began my life as Tinu Diver, going from one constantly mispronounced name to another, creating a lot of confusion about my ethnicity in the process.  After several people began asking me if I was Indian -- apparently 'Tinu' is a common name there as well-- I started using my full first name to put folks on notice.

Or so I thought.

The 'Atinuke' combined with the 'Diver' actually created more identity confusion for most people meeting me for the first time: a lot of Africans/Nigerians give me a suspicious side-eye wondering why my first name is Yoruba but my last name isn't, concluding that my parents are American Black Nationalists who expressed their pan-Africanism by giving their daughter a Yoruba name (which of course means Diver is my slave name).   And every now and again someone forces me to expend extra energy I don't have when they keep asking, "I know you were born in America, but what country are you from?"

My only comfort: I'm not alone.  Even my husband has stories about people who confuse his last name for French instead of Irish, adding all sorts of accents and mispronunciations as they see fit.  So now I simply appreciate the times when someone actually pronounces my name correctly the first time or I politely correct them -- that it's Diver, like river; it's Irish like Riverdance.

8 comments:

  1. "Yes, that's right, I would roll up into the teachers' lounge passing out cheat-sheets."

    And that's where I cracked up. I pictured a pro-active, miniature version of you strutting proudly into the teachers' lounge to tell it like it is.

    I'm glad you've come to enjoy your name for what it is. And yes, any name can be mispronounced, even the "easy" ones. (You'd think "Sanders" would be easy, but a few folks want to turn it into "Saunders" for some reason.)

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  2. @Virginia
    Yes, there are quite a few "unconventional" things I did as a child, but my mom will be happy to know I knocked on the lounge door and didn't just barge in, lol. Oh no, my mom raised me better than that.
    Interestingly enough, as much as people mispronounce my name, I've also had as many compliments and comments like: "Oh what a beautiful name." I can't take any credit for my name, so I just say, "Thanks, I'll let my mom know." :)

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  3. I went through that every September-- my first name is Scottish Gaelic, and my last name is what my grandfather thought up for US INS (My mom's family is Scottish, and in the year my dad's dad immigrated, Native Americans weren't allowed to become US citizens, and he was Kali'na). Also, schools didn't understand the Scottish (or NDN) naming system, so I had to explain that I shared my mother's surname-- when I registered for high school, the administration demanded my birth certificate (because my mum was faking...WTF?...please insert your own MacBeth joke here).
    Ironically, people in Scotland who have no trouble with my first name have trouble with my last name, so I go by my paternal grandmother's maiden name (Stewart-Laing), just to shut people up.

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  4. *Raising my hand* Yes, this was me. I learned to spell phonetically before the second grade because teachers, girl scout leaders, doctors, hell anybody not familiar with ethnic names that weren't from Europe (and they screwed those up too) would mess my name up. Too many vowels I guess. I was also the only ethnic black person in class and that was a whole other set of issues that I had to work out.

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  5. @ S.B.
    Wow. Okay, so I can stop complaining now, lol.

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  6. @Browncow
    So funny you should bring up phonetic spelling, I was just thinking about this the other day while on hold with a customer service rep in Indian who couldn't understand me even though we were both speaking English. I thought how I basically have become my mother doing the whole "A-as in apple, T-as in Tom, I- as in igloo, N - as in Nancy, U- as in unicorn, K - as in king, E - as in eagle," which I remember her having to do ALL the time growing up with our last name. So overhearing her all those years served as good preparation, and occasionally I'll throw in some more "humorous" words.

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  7. Tinu, I agree! My mother and father did the same thing! I spelled out my name the same way. I still do it today since my last name is now of Eastern European origin. I just traded vowels for consonants and people still screw my last name up. You think I'd be used to it by now.

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  8. @Browncow
    Honestly, I think some people just forget. Sometimes the brain just goes immediately off of what it sees and knows. That can be a hard habit to break sometimes.

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