Nicknames are usually one of those things kids do to each other as a way of “owning” another kid, either as a friend or an enemy. Rarely do kids give themselves nicknames, and those that do self-name rarely stick unless they’re insistent to the point of violence.
I’m not talking about the difference between Dave and David, but those names that spring from a sort of familiarity that is earned over time. A lot of times the nickname is a variant of a person’s name or some transmogrification thereof, but every once in a while a name is forced on a kid by a more powerful force that only time will reveal as a true insult.
I’m talking about those “nicknames” given by teachers (and authors) to students with “difficult” names.
What jumpstarted my memory was the middle grade book I’m currently reading. I’m not done yet, so no review here, but I’m liking it so far. But I got to this point where the main character is showing up for his first day of fourth grade and he’s noting all his friends. One in particular (names changed to protect the story) is nicknamed Checkers, because he plays the game a lot, but his real name is from Central Asia. So far none of the other characters has a nickname, and this one really struck me.
Why? Because I don’t buy it.
Let’s be honest: in a middle grade book no author is ever going to give a character a nickname with the explanation that their family name is too foriegn sounding, but it happens. It happened when I was in grade school when a boy with the name Morro – a diminutive Spanish word used to mean ‘pebble’ in the same way we might call something cute as a button – introduced himself on the first day of class. Our kindly old teacher smiled and said “That might be hard for some children to say. Let’s call you Mario from now on.”
And it stuck.
We were kids. We didn’t think his name was hard to say. We didn’t think we could tell the teacher she was wrong. We didn’t know what to say. And to this day I have no idea what Morro thought about the whole thing, except that he had a look of shock on his face at the time.
To be fair, kids can be cruel when it comes to unusual names. When I was a teacher I heard many times a boy named Farhad called Forehead by muscle-headed louts in the hallways. Right or wrong, the name came about from fellow students, again as a means for controling the dialog. Farhad, a wire of a boy, knew he couldn’t argue back and any teachers’ intervention on his behalf only made it worse for him. Another boy in his situation might have taken on the nickname Fred and been done with it.
But when I read a middle grade book where kids are bestowing cute nicknames on each other and there are no mean nicknames to counter, then I know I’m in an author’s Wonderland. Can’t a boy named Depak simply exist the way a James or a Melissa exists without having to resort to calling him a nickname clearly aimed at drawing attention away from his ethnic diversity? If his nickname and how he got it isn’t intergral to the story, then what’s the purpose? If the point is ‘that’s how it is at that grade’ then why only acknowledge one side? Better to give a kid a funny name and be done with it, ignoring the nickname and the explanation in the process. The kid’s named Checkers, that’s good enough.
What’s in a nickname? It depends on who bestows it, but I think authors have to pay close attention to how these nicknames feed into the reader’s culture and not forward subtle messages that some kids’ names are “different” and somehow deserving the disrespect given them.