Names are elusive

As a kid, I was introverted and completely content to be either alone or with one or two good friends. I had no interest in meeting other people. 

Also, I rarely looked for more than what was already in my orbit. I’d choose a book to read from the classroom library, skipping the school or municipal libraries. I often listened to music my friends liked or none at all. I didn’t have celebrity crushes.

Whether a cause or an effect, I’m terrible at names.

Not just the names of people I just met or the 17 people I was introduced to at the holiday party or the eight new people on campus who each said a sheepish hello at the faculty meeting and I’m supposed to remember them all from that?

There was a book I read. Who wrote it? I don’t know. It was decades before I thought to look for another book by the same author if I liked the one I just read.

Why? I don’t know. It’s a completely logical sequence of events, and I am often rational to a fault. In this realm of life skills, logic and reason didn’t factor in.

It’s embarrassing in conversations about classic literature. Who wrote that? Or the same question the opposite way: what books did that author write?

(And there’s no hope for me if a novel has too many characters in it.)

I remember the words to songs from 30 years ago that I know I never owned … and I have no idea who sang them.

Even worse when a song was covered and the performer is multiple choice.

Not limited to people, though. I don’t remember the names of songs, either. Doesn’t matter which genre.

“Hey, do you know [this song]?”


“It’s by [band].”


“It goes like [sings a bit].” 


Music history classes were treacherous. Songs, composers, performers, to be identified both on paper and by listening.

This wouldn’t have been a problem if I knew the names of any classical music before going to college, or if I could identify any of it by composer ahead of time, or if I listened to anything beyond what we were required to listen to.

What’s already in my orbit?

Actors? I know a few, but I don’t watch a lot of movies or any TV, so there’s not a lot of context. As I get older and the people I knew are no longer hot (or, in some cases, alive), I know even less.

When I started teaching, I had about a hundred students in fifth grade who I saw once a week for 40 minutes, and between 40 and 60 students in sixth grade who I saw three times a week for 40 minutes.

Learning their names was rough.

With the fifth graders, I asked them to quiz me on their name if they saw me anywhere outside of class (and not to take it personally if I didn’t know yet—they delighted in this game). Their winter concert was straightforward: each lesson group (four or five kids) went up on stage and played one song. They were terrified, so I made an agreement with them. They would practice their instruments and be ready to play their song, I would practice their names and be ready to announce them all. To level the playing field for nerves, I would announce them all without a list in front of me.

I got most of them.

Chemo brain made this task infinitely more difficult, and up to and including my last days in a school, there were times when writing a pass or something equally innocuous, I would see the blank for their name and have no idea what their name was. Sometimes I could steal it from their instrument’s name tag or their music folder. Sometimes I could scan down the roster and pick them out. And sometimes I would have to ask.

I hate asking. Not because of anything to do with me—I ask adults all the time and have no issue with it—but because a lot of kids are sad when their teacher doesn’t know their name, especially when we’ve been in class together for a year and a half. I explained to them the issue, but that only helps brains understand, not hearts.

As a traveling teacher, the issue was further compounded. More than once, I’ve worked at four schools simultaneously. That’s four principals, four sets of people in the office, four sets of coworkers, four sets of custodians, four sets of procedures. (I had no trouble remembering four codes for the copy machines.) And in my most recent job, my assignment changed every year for my first four years. Not every school was changed out, but at least one school was new every year.

I had a running joke (with myself?) on the only campus I was on for all seven years that no one whose name I knew was allowed to leave.

As the teacher presiding over concerts, parents know me and I don’t know them. As the clinician at conferences or honor bands, there are a lot of people who know who I am who I have never met. I’m pretty good with faces, if I’m paying attention, so I usually can just say, “I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name” if I’m interacting with someone I recognize.

That said, I’ve more than once said, “It’s nice to meet you” to someone I had—apparently—met before.

No shame in that any more. I know it’s a weakness, and I do my best, so I apologize and move on.

Having a noteworthy name—both first and last names are unusual—people more often remember my name. Alas, it is rarely reciprocated in one try.

I’ve taken to asking a person once or twice over the course of a conversation to please remind me their name. “I’ll ask seven more times and then I’ll be embarrassed into remembering it.” Hahaha not really a joke but humor always helps anyway.

I’m better about remembering authors and performers than I used to be. Since chemo I’ve made an effort to remember everything, since so much was lost. 

I have always been impressed by people who remember people well—whether people they’ve met or people who create—and continue to do my best.

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