Naming

Isle of Man

Thanks for checking out my new blog. I’ve been meaning to set up a professional/personal blog for some time now, and since I’ve committed to finally using blogs in one of the college courses I’m teaching this fall, I knew I had to practice what I’ll be preaching to my students. Another inspiration for getting this off the ground has been the University of Maryland Writing Project (part of the National Writing Project), which I’m in the thick of. All teachers should participate in their area’s Writing Project! I’m sure I’ll be gushing more about the experience later, but for my first post I thought I’d share one of my “Morning Pages,” a piece of daily writing we do in the course. I like this piece because it’s about my name– what better topic to introduce the online space that represents me? Also, I want to set the example for my students (and other teachers) that although publishing personal writing can feel like jumping into shark-infested waters, it’s something we all “need to get uncomfortable with” (thanks, Joseph!). There’s no other way to get better at writing. So here goes.

“I want to talk about my last name for a bit. When I was twenty, my dad took his parents and his daughters to Ireland. It was good timing because it turned out to be the last time that my grandparents could go abroad, and after a period of increasing infirmity, my Papa died a few years later. At one point on the trip we went to the Isle of Man, where Papa’s grandfather came from, and we found ourselves in a library where a genealogy librarian worked. Papa told the librarian his grandpa’s name—William Callow—hoping to find out more about his roots. As it turned out, the name alone was not enough to go on. The name William of course is common, and, who would have thought it, but so is the name Callow! Asking about William Callow in the Isle of Man is like trying to look up a John Smith in the United States. There were far too many possibilities. Did he have any other information? the librarian asked. Other family members? Dates? Towns of origin? No.

“My emotions were mixed. I was disappointed of course that we couldn’t find out more, and I’m sure Papa felt that disappointment even more keenly. I felt cut off, as if my known history only went back so far; that the end of my genealogical rope was just a frayed end dangling in space. But in another way, the librarian’s inability to tell us about William Callow was a kind of homecoming. Here on the Isle of Man—a British Isle that no one has ever heard of except for its tail-less cats and its annual auto race, the Tourist’s Trophy—the name Callow is as Manx as apple pie is American. Here on the Isle of Man, you can say your last name and no one has to ask you to repeat yourself. You aren’t the only Callow in the phone book. Hell, even a trained genealogist can’t help you find your ancestors! There was something about being a Callow among many generations of Callows that comforted me, even if I didn’t get to find out about their stories.

“Maybe if I were older on that trip I would have had the courage to wander into a few bars (emboldened by a pint or two along the way) to see if there were any Manx Callows around. Even if they weren’t knowingly related to William Callow, our paths would have had to cross at some point way back, right? Perhaps that’s something I’ll have to do one day.

“There is an English word, ‘callow,’ as in ‘callow youth’—naïve, inexperienced, unsophisticated. Every once in a while someone is pleased to point out the meaning of that word to me, as if to catch me with my pants down (“Are you a callow Callow?” They snicker). That’s fine. Anyway, as an English teacher I can’t help but be a little pleased when people improve their vocabularies. But now when I get ribbed for my name, I appreciate the reminder of that day. My name is a small island in the Irish Sea; it is a walk through the foggy Borough of Douglas, where we are looking for the past.”

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