'His Name Is Michael'
by Donna M. Marriott,
Education Week, October 9, 2002
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This is a true story—one that both haunts and inspires me. I
wish I could say that the names have been changed to protect
the innocent. The names were changed, but, sadly, no one was
Beneath the veneer of ‘best practice’ there was a layer of
I was teaching that year in a full-inclusion, multiage class.
My teaching partner and I had 43 children ranging in age from
5 to 9, ranging in ability from average to labeled, ranging in
experience from indulged to adequate. I boasted about being a
progressive teacher—a teacher bent on changing the system. As
I looked around my classroom, I could see evidence of all the
latest and greatest in education: child-directed learning,
meaning-driven curriculum, responsive teaching, authentic
assessment. It took a little boy to show me what I couldn't
see: Beneath this veneer of "best practice," there was a layer
of fundamental ignorance.
He appeared at my classroom door in the middle of a busy
morning gripping the hand of a harried school secretary. He
was a tiny child with carefully combed hair, wearing a crisply
pressed shirt, tightly clutching his lunch money. The
secretary handed this child to me and rattled off the
institutional essentials: "His name is Michael. He is a bus
rider. He doesn't speak English." Not much of an introduction,
but that's how it happens in schools. New students appear in
the office at times that make sense in their lives—not in our
lives. These children are unceremoniously placed in whatever
classroom has an extra chair. It's not very welcoming—but
that's the drill.
We did all the usual new-kid things that day. We played the
name game. The kid of the day gave him the grand tour of our
room. He got to sit on the couch even though it wasn't really
his turn. The children insisted that Michael have a buddy for
absolutely everything—learning buddy, recess buddy, bathroom
buddy, lunch buddy, cubby buddy, line buddy, water buddy, rug
buddy, bus buddy. They thought it would be great if he had a
sleepover buddy, too, but I was able to convince them
otherwise. We were genuinely glad to have this youngster in
our learning family. But Michael didn't become part of our
Michael existed marginally on the outside of the group.
Sometimes he was on the outside looking in; sometimes he was
on the outside looking out. I often saw him with his eyes
closed—looking somewhere hidden. He was well-mannered,
punctual, respectful, cute-as-a-button— but completely
detached from me, from the children, and from the learning.
I met with the bilingual resource teacher to chat about
concerns and possibilities. She told me she could come do an
informal observation "a week from tomorrow." It was a long
wait, but that's how it is in schools. She came. She watched.
She listened. On her way out she said, "You might have better
results, dear, if you call him Miguel."
I was a progressive teacher: How could I have made such a
I could not have been more embarrassed or confused. How could
I have been calling this child the wrong name? I was a
progressive teacher: How could I have made such a mistake? How
could the school secretary have made such a mistake? Why
hadn't the parents corrected her? Why hadn't the child
Miguel didn't stay with us for long. His family moved on to
follow their own calendar of opportunities. We didn't get to
say goodbye, but that's how it happens in schools.
Miguel's paperwork arrived about three weeks after he had
moved away. I was going through the folder, updating it for
his next teacher, when I noticed something that made me catch
my breath. His name wasn't Michael. It wasn't Miguel. His name
I wondered how it was that this child could have been part of
my classroom for more than a month, and in that entire time he
never had enough personal power to tell me that his name was
David. What was it about me, about the other children, about
the school that made David feel he had to give up his name? No
child should have to forfeit his identity to walk through our
classroom doors. No child. Ever. It is much too high a price
I have to do a bit of guessing about what was going on in
David's head. I am guessing that he was told to respect la
maestra—to "be good" in school. I am guessing that he thought
if the teacher decided to change his name, well then ... that
was that. I am guessing that he didn't connect school to any
known reality. He could be David at home, but at school he was
expected to become someone else.
I don't have to do much guessing at my own complicity. It
never occurred to me that his name would be anything other
than Michael. In the entire breadth of my experience, people
had called me by my given name. In those few instances when
someone mispronounced my name, I would offer a polite but
prompt correction. I was taught to speak up for myself. I was
given the power to be me—in my school, in my neighborhood, in
my life. I never considered checking in with David about his
name. It was beyond the scope of my experience. It was beyond
the lens of my culture.
Our power distance was huge. I had all the power. I was white;
I was the teacher; I spoke English. David had no power. He was
brown; he was a child; he spoke Spanish. Our sense of
individualism clashed. I expected him to have a sense of
himself—to stand up for himself, to speak up. He denied
himself. David expected and accepted that he was "less than"
in the culture of school. Our perception of reality was
polarized. I trusted in the precision of the system. The name
on the registration card just had to be correct. That's how it
works in schools. David accepted the imprecision of the
system. Having his name changed was just part of the whole
I have learned that being a good teacher is as much about
rapport and relationships as it is about progressive
curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment.
I have learned many difficult lessons in the years since David
sat submissively on the edge of my classroom. I have learned
lessons about passive racism—the kind that we cannot see in
ourselves, don't want to see in ourselves, and vehemently
deny. I have learned lessons about implicit power and explicit
powerlessness—about those voices we choose to hear and those
voices we unknowingly silence. I have learned that being a
good teacher is as much about rapport and relationships as it
is about progressive curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment.
If I could go back to that day when the secretary brought in a
little boy with carefully combed hair wearing a crisply
pressed shirt, I would shake his hand and say, "Hello. My name
is Mrs. Marriott. What's your name?" I believe that if I had
simply asked him, he would have told me.
Donna Marriott is an early-literacy program manager in the San
Diego, Calif., city schools.