• The Poplar Family

Just Toya

My name is Toya, not "LaToya," just Toya. Someone once mailed me a package labeled "J-U-S-T-O-Y-A." Just as I started to form my mouth to say, "What in the world?" I realized I must have a habit of saying, "Nope, it's not LaToya; it's just Toya." I have never asked my parents why they named me "Toya" instead of LaToya. Perhaps it is because I have both an "L" and an "A" in my middle name, "La'Vion," pronounced love-ee-on.

No disrespect to other Toyas in the world, but I was not always a fan of my first name. As a little girl, with an old soul, having the word "toy" in my name left too much room for playground mockery. "Toya" just felt like a nickname. Despite my struggles with my first name, I have always been fond of my middle name. La'Vion personifies who I am―different from what you might think at first glance.

My parents were poets, so it is not surprising that they would give me such a poetic middle name. My maternal grandmother's name was "Lovie," and my paternal grandmother's name was "Eliza," but my grandfather always called her "Love." Even though my parents divorced when I was a toddler, my middle name carries a legacy that unites both sides of my family.

My second-grade teacher consistently mispronounced my name, often cycling through variations of "Tonya, Torah, but never quite Toya." It is interesting how, though being named "Toya" did not enthuse me, I desperately desired to hear my name said correctly. My Dad scheduled a parent-teacher conference to express his concern. I can't even remember vocalizing my frustration regarding how Mrs. Glover perpetually mispronounced my name, but I'll never forget him addressing the issue.

Being called by a name other than your own can feel like a verbal assault. If it's an innocent mistake, it's no big deal. But when you have to sit through daily attendance Monday-Friday and answer to a name that is not your own, it feels embarrassing and can be demeaning. As a parent myself, I now wonder if my name's pronunciation was essential to my Dad because he named me. Did he have insight into how the repeated mispronunciation of the first label a child receives can become a gateway for an individual to be comfortable with being disrespected?

As a social worker, was he accustomed to watching coworkers make half-hearted attempts to pronounce client names? Or was it a personal pet peeve because he grew up in a community where people mispronounced his name. His name was "Joseph." Imagine being a wordsmith and hearing people call you, "Josep," with a hard "P."

Regardless of his motive, I knew my Dad had my back. His specificity concerning my name made me feel like not only was my name significant but so was I. I gained a profound level of respect for him; he modeled that it is OK to command others' respect if and when necessary. It was clear that he believed that no matter how unique the name, children deserve to have their name said adequately. My teacher never mispronounced my name after that conference. And I no longer felt like my name was just a nickname. I felt like it was worthy of standing alone and being properly pronounced.

My Dad passed away that school year. And although Mrs. Glover had a reputation for being stern, she handled me with care. I cannot imagine the outcome of that year had she not taken the time to learn to say my name.

"No matter how unique the name, children deserve to have their name said adequately."

What's the worst mispronunciation of your name you've ever heard?

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