My parents proudly named me Jebeh Emmelda Metzger.
Every year, starting in kindergarten, my teachers would butcher my name: “Je-bay? Jee-bah?, What’s a Jebeh?” My so-called friends would burst into laughter and correct the teacher, shouting “It’s Jebeh!” Then my teachers would ask me in a pitying tone, “Why would your parents name you such a thing?” Or my favorite question, “Did your parents like Star Wars?” (Jabba the Hutt).
In middle school my teachers would just call me Metzger to avoid having to say my first name. This might have been even worse – knowing everyone knew why they used my last name. I would fantasize about having other names and ask my parents, “Why didn’t you name me Janet Jackson or Shera?”
When I was thirteen my father finally sat me down and told me the true meaning of my name. Jebeh is a Vai name from one of the 16 ethnic groups in Liberia. I was named after my great aunt, the late Chief Jebeh Haja Sessay of the Vai tribe, who ruled her county for over 30 years. She was my father’s favorite aunt. Something clicked. I realized my name was unique and special and something I should be proud of. I felt a new sense of honor and responsibility to lead, like my namesake.
We have the ability to empower or strip power through simple things like how we address a person or ask a question. “What’s a Jebeh?” strips power from and embarrasses a kid who just wants to fit in. “Jeb-ay, I’m sorry if I said that wrong, can you please teach me the correct way?” may put a student on the spot, but the power is in his/her hands and the door to a constructive interaction is opened.