The Cornerstones of Personhood
by Michael Prihoda, Manager of Development and Communications
“Proper names are poetry in the raw.” – W.H. Auden
“Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and fear we cannot live within.” – James Baldwin
My name is a weighty thing. Not so much the first or even the middle. But the last name. Prihoda. Seven letters that have caused more questions to be asked of me than any other thing about me.
Its origin is eastern European. More specifically, from a region now contained by the Czech Republic. Like many European names that made their way stateside in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it is bastardized. Czechoslovakian renders the “Pr” as closer to a “Ch” and a diacritic props the “i” in the original language. So the name I am always asked to pronounce is something like “Chee-hoe-dah” in its original formulation, emphasis on the second syllable. Though I, when asked, will forever present it as “Pre-hoe-dah” since I do not, nor ever plan to, speak fluent Czechoslovakian.
Every time I speak my name I am asked to spell it. Mostly I am given the honor of having it pronounced correctly following initial clarification. Nonetheless, the number of alternative pronunciations I have heard are nearly endless. When I taught middle schoolers, they had a field day bringing slant rhymes and modifications to bear, one eighth grade girl cycling between calling me Mr. Toyota and Mr. Corolla or, in her most excitable moments, Mr. Toyota Corolla.
Names as the First Cornerstone of Personhood
The reason I dwell so long on my name is ultimately because of my time in the classroom. I am white. Male. Born and raised in northern Wisconsin. My students were, with a few exceptions, African-American. I had no frame of reference for the names I would encounter. They represented a different slice of American culture. Not, I feel I must emphasize for my readers in the back, a less than slice.
One of the first and most important tasks my school set me as a new teacher was to learn my students’ names and be able to match them with their faces. A week in, I called my sister, a career educator with years under her belt. I made a joke about one student’s name, laughing at a string of letters that, from my narrow perspective, seemed absurd. Of all the mistakes I made that first year, perhaps that is the one I am most embarrassed about now.
I believe it is impossible to love students if we cannot even see them as human enough to deserve a proper name, pronounced correctly.Michael Prihoda
Because if there was anything I could relate to off the bat with my students it was the struggle of a name people in the wild struggle to pronounce. Even if for them it was first names and for me a last name. Even if those origins shared so little. Here I was, another white guy in an urban school, getting a Black kid’s name wrong and having the audacity to joke about it. I believe it is impossible to love students if we cannot even see them as human enough to deserve a proper name, pronounced correctly.
Names are no small thing. When Auden calls proper names poetry, I believe he is connecting them to the art and the beauty of us. Of our possibility. To call a student anything other than the name they wish to be called is disrespectful. Educators must do better than to take a student’s name in vain. If we refuse, it says much more about us than it does about the culture that honored the student with their name in the first place.
Faces as the Second Cornerstone of Personhood
Where names are the first cornerstone of who we are, faces are surely the second. I’ve typically tried to hide mine. Or at least kept it off the radar. Not that I’m ashamed of it. Rather, I’m just an incorrigibly staunch introvert who would rather do the noticing than be noticed.
So it is that I’ve come to reflect upon my occasional work as a photographer in schools. The reactions I get when I walk in with my camera have come to be predictable. In almost every class, students fall into three groups. One group plays it up for the camera and begs for their picture to be taken (mostly elementary students). The second group ignores me altogether, pretends I’m not there except to potentially give me a wary side-eye (mostly middle schoolers). And the third group reacts with vehement opposition to my presence (mostly high schoolers).
Just recently I walked into a classroom where one student looked up from the paper he was typing to see me and immediately said, “If he takes a picture of me, I’ll knock him out.” It was obviously the sort of toss-away thing teenage boys say dozens of times a day out of budding machismo. I felt no threat. I rather felt I understood him.
He did not want to be seen. I can almost guarantee he was a student some teachers would label a behavior issue. I’m sure many other things in school beyond a photographer trigger similar reactions and defensiveness in this student and others. A loose threat the easiest shield available to a young Black student like him.
Because a picture is a moment of vulnerability. Both beautiful lie and perfect truth. As soon as a photo is snapped, we are never again that person. Life carries us forward, past a moment recorded in the already-receding past. Yet what is more honest than an unedited photo? How could some of us not fear being recorded in such a way? Even, perhaps, captured to a degree. If anything, I am surprised that I do not get such reactions more often.
Why? Too often in our society when a white male sees a Black student, it is not their true selves we see. We were not trained by our culture to see them as whole, as human, as worthy. We are trained to see the devil in an empty threat to knock us out. We are not trained to wonder why this is the reaction provoked by walking into a space with a camera and threatening to see imperfectly.
Every student deserves to be seen. Deserves classrooms and communities where vulnerability is embraced and not responded to harshly.Michael Prihoda
It is not too late for that student to be seen. I fundamentally believe I am where I am today largely because I had teachers who took the time to see me before I metaphorically disappeared, a kid who did not want to be seen. They saw possible futures in me that I thought were impossible. Their seeing opened my eyes and gave me a framework that I used to pursue an expanded view of myself and what I was capable of.
Every student deserves to be seen. Deserves classrooms and communities where vulnerability is embraced and not responded to harshly. Where they know a visitor with a camera will see their full humanity and not the mask they wear or the mask the world says they wear. Unfortunately, that isn’t reality yet. At least not in my city.
So I show up to work, some days with my camera, intent on getting better at seeing the students I aim to serve. Hoping I am not alone in trying to see them clearly. In trying to name them precisely. Because if we can’t honor their names or witness their full humanity, the future will be no better than the present.
This story is part of The Mind Trust’s Equity on the Mind series.