Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

I Have Called Thee By Thy Name


Pallos-Haden, Katie


As a teacher, I used to think it was incredibly important to be able to name kids on the first day of school. This act demonstrated (or so I thought) that I wished to know them and establish a relationship with them. This is what the act of naming did. My own experiences as an adult student really left me wondering about this.

First class. Enter the room; glance around-check for familiar faces. Nod, sit down and wait… Tense, anxious, the professor begins, “Tell me your name and something about yourself…”

This is the part of the experience of entering a new class that I hate the most. Saying/giving your name is one thing, but revealing yourself is quite another. I found myself wondering if I hated this experience so much what must it be like for kids as they enter into a new classroom for the first time; what is the experience like of being nameless and unknown for kids as they enter into a new pedagogical relationship with the teacher? I wondered if they shared the same or a similar “lived” experience.


To Name is to Reveal

As a new student you want to be known by the teacher but are unsure how to define this relationality. Do you want to be known on the teacher’s terms or do you come to be known through the experience of the class, allowing the lived experience to reveal who you really are? Revealing yourself in the first class limits who you can become. We reach into the past to speak of ourselves, setting parameters and limiting opportunity to move into the future and create new labels for ourselves.


Remaining Nameless is to be Undetermined

I feel a new sense of freedom when I know that the teacher doesn’t know me. It’s like a game for me to see how long it will take the teacher to figure out my name and then how long before they find out all about me. The whole experience is a challenge. (Mark)

For Mark, being nameless is like a game. At this point, he remains undetermined, not yet found out by the teacher. This experience of namelessness opens up a world of possibility for Mark. His relation- ship with the teacher can take on new form, in fact almost any form he chooses as no relational bond exists as of “right now.” He has no past with this teacher – only the potential to be discovered, to be found out by the teacher. This lack of relationality gives a great deal of freedom to the student. They are not bound by past conduct or prejudgement therefore they have the freedom “to be” as they choose.

“It’s exhilarating, like walking into a mall full of unknown things and people.” (Jarett)

Jarett shares a similar experience. He feels the experience of being nameless as a chance to be adventurous. The world is full of possibility and all things are possible for Jarett because he has no past. He has the opportunity to be new again. He can be the type of student he wishes to be, enter into the pedagogical relationship he chooses because of his ability to be this or that. Being nameless opens a new world for Jarett full of opportunity to become the type of student he wishes to be and to have new relationships of his own choosing and definition.


This opportunity also allows Jarett to experience himself as new by the “others”. Because he is nameless to his classmates as well as his teacher, he finds this to be an exhilarating experience. He can be viewed by others from a different perspective. He needn’t carry any burden from his past relationships therefore he is free to form and create new ones with his peers and his teachers.


But what happens to those students who are with the same classmates from year to year who never get to experience that sense of “newness” or namelessness because the others do not allow this? Even though the teacher may be new thus allowing for a new relationship to develop between the teacher and the student, others in the class may prevent this from happening.

“Mrs. Haden, Jarett is always late for school and he never hands anything in on time. Last year he was always down at the principal’s office because…”

This perspective of the others can limit new relational opportunities for students like Jarett. Others reveal his past to the “new” teacher limiting the possibility for Jarett to create a different persona for himself. He cannot experience a move into the future; the creation of a new self because others have not afforded him the chance or the opportunity to change.


I became much more aware of this need to be nameless particularly from the perspective of the “other” when I became a graduate student. In the first classes I find myself amongst a group of strangers which allows me – the new and nameless learner – to be whomever I wish. It is a totally liberating experience. How wonderful to have no past – to have the opportunity to grow, develop, become and form relationships from the moment the class begins. This experience can be short lived however. The faculty is small and soon I “know” many of the other students. Entering a new class under these circumstances becomes quite burdensome because I feel limited by the others. I now have a past. Although the teacher may not know me, others in the class do. I cannot become or develop the type and form of relationship with a new teacher in the way I may desire because my name gets in the way.

“I prefer to remain anonymous. In a smaller class, I don’t mind it as much. If I know someone I smile and say hello and sit with them. If there are no seats, I find an empty desk and sit by myself and smile at anyone who feels the urge to look at me because I am new.” (Amanda)

Amanda experiences being nameless in two ways. She sees herself as being new through the eyes of the others and she also experiences anonymity. To be anonymous means to have “no name”. Since the label of a name has not yet been attached to her, she is able to remain nameless. But for how long will Amanda wish to remain nameless? Will she want a label? One she can hide behind which allows her to be known and at the same time choosing to remain anonymous (not wanting others to know her). Does she loose her sense of uniqueness because she desires anonymity?


To Name is to Label

I often wonder about my own name and the difficulty it presents for people to whom I am nameless. They are never sure which label to attach to me and at the same time the label they do attach defines the form of our relationship.

Mrs. Haden, Mrs. Pallos-Haden, Katie Haden, Katie Pallos-Haden, Kate Haden, Kate Pallos, Kate Pallos-Haden, Kathy Loren Pallos-Haden.

All of the permutations and combinations of my name and the way it is used to label me afford me the opportunity of knowing something about relationality by the way I am addressed. My name becomes a label I can hide behind. Each naming is unique and the act of others choosing a label for me allows me to be and feel unique. The name I give to others for myself determines how much I want people to know me. I name myself as Katie (sometimes Pallos-Haden but mostly as Katie Haden). When addressed in any other form I know that others have made assumptions about the label they are attaching to me. Only intimate friends address me as Kate. We have a special relationship. When a stranger does this, I feel the status of our relationship called into question. It is like assuming a degree of intimacy when one does not exist. Is it the same experience for students when we re-name them? What happens when you give a nickname? Are you attaching a new label thus allowing for the possibility of developing a new relationship? Or are we transcending boundaries by giving names to people in relationships we only presume we have? Does the use of a nickname tie that person to his past not allowing for any future growth to occur or a lack of acknowledgement that any change may have occurred in the bearer of the nickname? The nickname takes us back to old ways of being. It does not allow for the possibility of growth and change when used in this context.

“For even a persons ego, his very self and personality is indissolubly linked with his name.” (Cassirer, 1946, p.49)

If this is the case, we as teachers limit the identity of students when we nickname them (without consent) or fail to name them at all. Their true personality, the person they want us to know is not allowed to exist under these constraints.


Naming implies a form of relationality and how I call you depends on the status and degree of intimacy within our relationship; assuming we have a relationship. The act of naming cannot define the relationship. When parents name their children, they confirm the relationality through the act of naming the child. When a used car salesman calls me by my name, he assumes a form of relationality that does not exist. Therefore, the experience of naming in the student-teacher relationship cannot assume an automatic relational bond. It cannot be created the same way that a parent can create it with their child. Even the term, “in loco parentis” cannot give the teacher the same level of intimacy that a parent can have with their child. Giving me a name in a classroom setting may mark the beginning of a relationship; it does not confirm it nor does it imply responsibility or ownership.


Naming Defines Relationality

Students want to be known by the teacher and most consider it important to be named within the first few classes. They seem less willing to want to reveal something about themselves, almost as if they don’t want to establish a relational bond with the teacher too quickly. They seem more concerned in being identified with their peers, establishing a relational bond with them first. They accept the teacher as a given; a choice they have little or no control over.


Some students reveal a desire to be named and known by the teacher while others are more reluctant. Some see it as a challenge while others view it as an opportunity to be free from a relationship and a chance to be “new” again. To be named marks the beginning of the relationship with the teacher. It is difficult to enter into a pedagogical relationship with the teacher without being named.


Naming as Belonging

Students support the notion that naming makes them feel like they belong. Through the act of naming they become members of the class and therefore develop a sense of community within the learning context.

“I do like the idea of people getting to know my name because I want them to know me as a student and a person.”

The act of naming does allow the teacher to create a form of community within the classroom. This small act, when it occurs within the first few classes, lets students know that they are a part of this group; they belong to the class and are a apart of this particular community of learners. Those students who are not named members of the class feel devalued by the teacher. They believe they are not important enough (in the teacher’s eyes) to be considered a part of this unique community. The teacher, continually searching for their name on a class list, only heightens their feelings of alienation.


“I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine”, (Isaiah 43:1) aptly describes the sense of community that exists in a particular class- room where the teacher makes every attempt to call the students by name and to have opening activities that allow the classroom to: “become our place, full of us, reflecting who we are, made by us…(Langeveld, 1983). Students in this class, demonstrate their sense of belonging and connection to the teacher and to their peers as well.


In a classroom where the act of naming did not happen, no relational bond, between the teacher and the students, or among the students, is created. The students, through their actions and behaviors, demonstrate they do not feel part of a group; there is little sense of belonging to a community of learners. This lack, certainly affect the overall dynamics of the group. The teacher, by the end of the first week, still could not name the students in the class. The opportunity to name the students and establish an initial relational bond is lost.

The experience of naming can also be seen as having the opposite effect – of creating a sense of not belonging:

George cringed each time he heard his name called. The teacher couldn’t understand why, each time she called his name, he seemed to become even more withdrawn. His journal revealed the reason. For George, the experience of being named by the teacher was one of pain, ridicule and humiliation. As a young student with a multitude of personal problems at home (his father’s severe alcoholism), George was strapped by his grade four teacher for not having completed his homework. Because he was a new student, he did notwant to draw attention to his family problems. The teacherdecided to make an example of him. She made him return to the class, drop to his knees, like to had done while being strapped, and explain to his new classmates what the experience was like. Whenever George heard his name after that he was automatically transported back to that devastating time. Even the story, “Curious George” was painful for him to listen to as the mention of the name George drew attention to the shame and humiliation he felt. For him the experience of being named brought pain and misery.


To be Nameless is to be Invisible

It is through the act of naming that we call forth the students’ being. According to Gadamer, “We seek the right word, i.e. the word that really belongs to the object so the object comes into language (1982, p.377). If this is the case, failing to name the object, in this case the student, causes the object to remain un-named or unidentified from language. Students who experience this form of namelessness often describe feelings of invisibility; of not being seen by the teacher. For them, to be nameless is to be invisible.


“I had a teacher who didn’t recall my name for about four weeks. During that time he hadn’t called upon me once for in-class discussions.”


Students who experience this invisibility only want to be in this place for a short period of time. When it continues for longer periods, they feel denied the experience of “being” a member of the class. It is a critical first step for membership in this community.


For some, the experience of invisibility may last throughout a term. For them being named is to be fixed in a certain place. They never fully belong:

Even though the teacher knew my name, I never got the feeling that I was a valued member of the class. My answers were not acknowledged and when they were, I felt the teacher did it simply because no one else had the answer. She made me feel like I was being penalized for being a smart girl. And so, I tried to become invisible, to disappear so the teacher wouldn’t have to feel obligated to call on me when she had already demonstrated time and again that I was truly not a member of the class.

Students want to be known in the classroom once they have found that comfortable niche for themselves. They are ready and willing to become risk-takers, to share ideas and opinions but only when they feel safe and secure in the classroom environment. The act of naming provides the opening for students to find a shared lived space with their teachers and classmates.


Entering a new classroom and being nameless causes some students to feel unprotected, vulnerable and insecure and at the same time giving them a sense of freedom. Students feel they have a chance to be seen in a new way. They describe it “like stepping into a new world” or “like going into somebody’s house where you look for familiar things, though nothing’s the same”. For many students it is a time of adaptation – trying to find a new space which is comfortable while trying to adapt to the expectations of new classmates and teachers. The new classroom becomes for the student that indeter- minate space for it contains that element of mystery (Langeveld, 1983).


In his play, “Romeo and Juliet”, Shakespeare asks, “What’s in a name?” Perhaps the underlying question should be “what is involved in the act of naming itself?; or in the experience of being named/nameless? Do we call into being the essence of that person through the act of naming or is the nameless person destined to remain an object not called into language? Does naming call a person into being?


The experience of being named by the teacher or by others marks the beginning of a relationship. How that person calls me also determines the degree and type of relationality we experience. The label which is attached to me allows me to know something about our relationship.


Attaching a name “calls” a person into being; their unique essence develops through language (in this case the act of naming). Naming also provides the opportunity for students to experience a sense of belonging; membership in a particular community or group. It creates the opportunity to be new again, to experience re-birth and growth. It allows the bearer to experience new possibilities and to “be” in a way which may not have previously been possible. It reaffirms who we are and the potential for what we may become.




Cassirer, E. (1946). An Essay On Man. London: Yale University Press.

Gadamer, H. (1982). Truth and Method. New York: Seabury.

Isaiah. Chapter 43, Verse 1. The Holy Bible. King James Version. New York: The World Publishing Company.

Langeveld, M.J. (1983). The stillness of the secret place. Phenomenology + Pedagogy, 1, 11-17.

Shakespeare, W. (1975). Romeo and Juliet. William Shakespeare: Six Tragedies. Pennsylvania: Franklin Library.