The Names We Are Called Shape Us

1KH_2417From about the age of two my brother Merle has been different. He “talked late” – as they said then – and when he did talk his speech was often confusing, a mix of lisp with mangled syllables.

From Grade One on, the challenges mounted. Teachers, for the most part, kind and compassionate were as much at sea as my parents.

Recess and lunch were lonely times. By Junior High, Grade 8, the course was set towards a remedial program at a separate school. The taunting of children turned into harassment by the young teens. Mental Merle was but one of the recurring jabs.

In retrospect little protected him. The advice of my mother was “just ignore them and walk by. That’s what I do.” (I never reflected upon the second part of that advice until much later.)

In a small, blue collar town options were few.

I think about the names I was called: Good Boy, One with Potential, Talented, A Leader in the Making, among others.

Names shape us; they can be both blessing and burden.[Tweet “Names shape us; they can be both blessing and burden.”]

As the years went by my brother began to default to “I’m not the smart one, you are.” Even though the family worked hard to affirm his intelligence in other areas, increasingly he began to offload, when he could, decisions about his life.

When forced to take an IQ test in order to secure some help the results triggered an avalanche of self-denial. “I’m stupid.” Soon after the results came back he quit reading, cancelling his subscription to computer and other magazines.

In so many ways, my life has been blessed but I also know the heavy side of being the one designated as “with potential.” And when the criteria for success is not defined – as is usually the case for clergy – I know how easily one can labour with the constant white noise of being “not good enough,” irrespective of how much others may say they value your gifts and contributions.

Names – they can be blessing but at times their power also needs to be held lightly.


  1. Hi Keith. Your phrase “one with potential” unlocked an old memory from Grade 3. That year I moved schools 3 times. Those were not the times when there was any thought to this having a jarring effect on a shy child. I brought home my final report card which was pretty good (now, as an adult I would say really good, given that I was at the last school for only 2 months). The comment was Carol is not living up to her potential…How deflating. Not doing well enough. can do better. If there was some positive side to this comment, I didn’t experience it.

    1. “Not doing well enough, can do better” – perhaps I can understand it if you are slacking off but that would not be your situation! Isn’t it amazing how, after all these years, we still retain those memories!

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