I made friends on Monday with a boy called Ptolemy. I was visiting his school as part of a week of activities “Walking the Boudica Way” along the route taken by Boudica and her army, 2000 years ago in her attempt to kick out the Romans from Britain. We were being shown the interconnecting efforts the school were making in developing their school grounds, vegetable and flower gardens, and outside learning and wild areas. As we entered the wild area a group of children were standing near to the teaching assistant supervising their activities. I asked the name of the children in turn and when I spoke to the boy standing next to her he gave an incomprehensible mumbled reply: ‘boobrobadaf’. A child next to him said: “he’s Ptolemy” (presumably named after the Alexandrian astronomer Claudius Ptolemy – who is called Greek after the convention that such ascribed historical nationalities relate to your lineage in the occupying power). The boy said the name in a gentle tone in no way suggesting that it should be the cause of surprise or amusement and demonstrating the way children learn to care for each other at the school. ‘Ptolemy... that’s a great name.’ I added.
I had imagined that saying the name to a stranger sometimes embarrassed Ptolemy because of its distinctiveness so I told a story about my own name. I call myself Tony, and have done so since I was in secondary School but my family called me Anthony and pronounced the ‘th’ unlike for most people with the same name when the h is left to produce ‘Antony’. (I have thought this was something to do with the limited understanding of English conventions of my parents as children of immigrants from Eastern Europe.) But I told the children only about the special pronunciation that my parents gave my name and that when on my first day of primary school my teacher asked me my name and I had said ‘Anthony Booth (pronouncing the th in both first and last name in a way that I later thought might sound amusing to some). [As I was speaking to the children, the idea was passing through my mind that I was being a boring old fart but it was too late to reconsider.] My teacher had looked down on me, a four year old, small for my age, from her great height and had delivered the put-down: ‘Anthony is not a name’. It was a lesson I never forgot.
My fears about appearing to these children as a boring adult were not borne out, at least for Ptolemy. From that moment on it was striking how much interaction he initiated with me. He chatted away to me as he climbed and dangled from trees. He ran up behind me and playfully tried to make me jump. When he was playing with two long bamboo sticks and I said that was just what I had been looking for, for the beans and tomatoes in my garden, he passed one over to me straight away as a gift even though he had seemed engrossed in his game. Later he came to give me the other one. I saw the gifts as symbolic of further communication. Of course, I left them for the play of others or to support school plants when they were needed.
But as I have written about this episode I have discovered something more about it. I have noticed before how the reflections prompted by writing about autobiographical episodes adds detail to memory. If I tell the story about my name again, (I have told it several times, a fact which prompted my thought of the dangers of becoming boringly repetitive as I get older), it will be a little more complicated. For within my family I was called ‘Ant’, a name that only in my sixties have I started to reclaim as an acceptable option. I now sign myself that way when sending e-mails to my sisters. So when on that first day, the teacher asked me my name, I was already hiding my family nickname and giving the public formal version. The fact that I was concealing my ‘real name’ must have doubled the shock when my official title was rejected.
At my secondary school we were called by our surnames and because at that time we felt so controlled by the weight of school power and convention we even called each other by surnames out of school. When this practice began to seem too foolish to maintain around the age of thirteen, and we asked our friends to use our first names, I announced myself with the new name of Tony which from then on I used to frame my identity.