What’s in a Name

When I was little, I had a stuffed bear I named Suzy Bear. (I have her still, but she’s in storage.) I don’t remember when I got Suzy Bear, or how she came by that name, but I loved her. Although I had other dolls and animals, and a sister and lots of friends, Suzy Bear was the one I confided in. She listened to my secrets, my gripes, my dreams and everyday ramblings. She comforted me when I got a spanking and (silently) cheered for me when I achieved something. Because I loved her so much, I thought Suzy was the prettiest name ever.

Suzy Bear. Actually, not. I don’t have a photo of her, so I did an internet search and found this photo on eBay (goo.gl/2kUEFC). It’s just like my Suzy Bear.

My family lived 3 blocks from the school. Down the street from us, across the street from the school playground, lived a family whose daughter had an intellectual disability. Julie was a nice girl, and I often stopped to say hello on my way home from school.

Looking back now, I realize Julie must have been very lonely. I never saw any visitors at her house, and the family never went anywhere. I suppose that’s why she often stood outside, as close to the street as possible without actually leaving her yard, when school was in recess or letting out. Even so, I never saw anyone talking to her.

Until one day when I was in second grade. Three older girls stood at the edge of the playground. Julie was out and the girls were talking to her. Though that side of the playground was for the fifth graders, I was curious enough to brave a venture over.

I knew all three of the older girls (we lived in a very small town; everybody knew everybody). They were not particularly nice girls, and their leader, Susie, was the not-nicest of all. Still, I was naïvely shocked to discover that they were taunting Julie. Calling her names, and even throwing little pebbles at her. Saying she was “so stupid, you just stand there and let people throw rocks at you.”

Now, I’ve always been a peacekeeper, and I’ve never liked confrontation. You might even say I was a bit of a coward, preferring to run away and hide over standing up. But this—this was too much.

“Stop it!” I demanded.

All three turned to me.

“What did you say?” Susie asked.

“I said, ‘stop it.’ Leave her alone.”

“Why do you care? Oh, you must be a retard too!” Now all three began taunting me, as well as Julie.

I didn’t back down (which surprises me to this day; although I know I wouldn’t back down now, at that time it would have been my most likely course of action). I told the girls they should be ashamed, what would their mothers say, anything I could think of. Eventually they got tired of the whole thing and left.

I asked Julie if she was okay. She just nodded.

I told her she had a pretty skirt on.

Then long, bony fingers grasped my shoulder firmly and a teacher pulled me away, dragging me back to the first- and second-grade side of the playground, telling me to “stop being mean to the poor retarded girl.” My pleas that I was being her friend fell on deaf ears. (And here’s how naïve I truly am: It only just occurred to me this very minute that the three girls probably told the teacher I was making fun of the girl across the street, because the teachers never went on the playground unless somebody was bleeding or somebody complained.)

I was galled, to use my dad’s word, at what the three girls were doing to Julie, as well as at the injustice of being blamed for causing her pain when I was the only one trying to be her friend. All day I burned with indignation.

Julie wasn’t outside when school let out that day. I thought it was just as well, because I wanted to hurry home and tell Suzy Bear all about it.

“Suzy Bear, do you know what Susie—” I stopped in revulsion. How could my beloved bear have the same name as that horrid girl? Suddenly I hated the name. It was ugly and mean and disgusting. It wasn’t to be borne. The only thing to do was change Suzy Bear’s name.

I tried several names for Suzy Bear. I called her Sabrina, after my favorite Angel on the new TV show. I called her Lisa, after my best friend. I called her Meg and Claudia and Anne after girls I read about. None of them seemed to fit.

And my feelings for Suzy Bear didn’t fit anymore, either. I tried to like her just as much, to tell her my secrets and dreams and gripes, but it just wasn’t the same. In some unnamable way, it just wasn’t “right.” Suzy Bear became just another toy.

That’s the power of a name.

I tell this story because I think that’s the emotional reaction of many people to the news about the ALA-ALSC changing the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

 

Most of the hoopla has died down, but I still get daily comments from people who are either outraged or delighted, and want to know what I think about it, so I’ve decided to respond.

I’m not delighted. I love Wilder’s Little House books and understand the contribution they’ve made to children’s literature. At a deep, primitive level, my heart feels like it did when I tried to rename Suzy Bear. It’s just feels like it’s not “right,” though I couldn’t say why.

Plenty of other people have tried to say why. But the ideas that seem to be causing outrage in so many other people don’t, for me, stand up past the emotion. To wit:

*It’s rewriting history to be politically correct

Um, what history is being rewritten? Is anyone saying that there wasn’t conflict between Native Americans and settlers? Or that there wasn’t good and bad on both sides? Or that the Ingalls didn’t respect Dr. Tan, or that Pa didn’t perform blackface? No. Is anyone saying that the parts of the books anyone finds offensive should be removed? No. So where is the rewriting of history?

I generally ignore any claims of politically correct/incorrect, because people seem to mean so many different things by the term(s) that it’s almost pointless. (The actual definition of the term is “not causing offense to disadvantaged persons or groups.” Hopefully none of my readers wish to go around causing offense.)

*It’s censorship

In a way, this is true. Although changing the name of an award is not the same as calling for the books to be pulled from shelves and banned, it is giving notice that some people may find offense at the books and therefore may wish to avoid them. I’m against censorship, so this does give me pause. However, there are two points that counteract this.

First is the fact that once this media hoopla dies down, no one will know the difference. Honestly, before the name change was announced, did you even know there was such an award? (“Yes!” shout librarians across the country. I’m betting this decision isn’t affecting your thoughts about the books.) For the rest of us: Can you name one person other than Laura Ingalls Wilder who has received this award? Have you ever tried to find a book based on its author winning this award, or turned down a book because its author didn’t? Neither will anyone else.

Second, the actual effect has, in fact, been quite the opposite. The Little House books have enjoyed a surge in purchases since the name change was announced. It’s rather hard to claim outrage over censorship when more people than ever are getting the books.

*It’s judging a different time by today’s standards

When Laura lived, blackface was “acceptable.” So was depicting all Native peoples as savages. I don’t judge Laura for not knowing better, because she was a product of her time, as we all are.

But that should not be confused with recognizing that being hurtful to people is wrong. Period.

What’s happened is that technology has allowed more people to have a voice—people who historically had no voice. As they speak up, those of us who lived in blissful ignorance of the hurt we were inadvertently causing have to make a decision.

Do we decide that since it’s always been that way, and it doesn’t hurt us, it’s okay? Or do we say, “I didn’t know better, but now that I do, I’ll do better.”? Maybe doing better means letting children who would be crushed by some of the comments and depictions in the Little House books know that we care how they feel. If a simple name change of an award hardly anyone knew existed can do that, then I can’t oppose it.

Feel free to let me know how you feel. All respectful comments welcome.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Judy Green on July 13, 2018 at 1:43 pm

    Intelligent and insightful commentary,Theresa. We can all learn from it.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Emily on July 13, 2018 at 7:40 pm

    That was a beautifully written piece. It made me cry a little, but I cheered a little when I that Claudia made your list of girl’s names. I love Claudia Kincaid. As far as the name-change issue- you’re right. I had never heard of the award until they changed the name and I’m a Laura nut.

    Reply

    • Posted by Emily on July 13, 2018 at 7:41 pm

      “When I SAW that Claudia’s name” is what I meant to write.

      Reply

    • Thanks, Emily. And you are right – Claudia Kincaid was the one.
      Yes, it’s easy to get upset when things we love are changed or, worse, seem to be denigrated, but all things considered, I don’t think the name change will make a difference in how readers connect with Laura and her writing.
      Thanks for commenting.

      Reply

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