How my teacher stole my ability to love my name at age 9

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Viewpoints writer Gissela SantaCruz, age 7, with her older sister Nancy. Contributed/FAMILY PHOTO

I haven’t always liked my name.

Growing up in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood, the instances of coming across someone who couldn’t pronounce my name were few. I wasn’t bothered much when I did meet someone who mispronounced my name — I still don’t mind it today.

But Ms. Cox, my elementary school gym teacher, taught me at the age of 9 to hate my name.

As an outgoing kid who enjoyed the outdoors and loved playing sports, I looked forward to going into the 4th grade; that’s’ when physical education class replaced recess at the elementary school in Dallas I attended.

I remember my older sister Nancy, who was much more interested in books and fashion, telling me how she hated playing kick ball, running and being made to participate in competitive team sports in P.E. I, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to play them all.

I hadn’t thought of Ms. Cox in years. But since the tragic shootings of two black men in Minnesota and Louisiana and of five Dallas police officers, I’ve encountered on social media several videos of diversity trainer and lecturer Jane Elliott. She is most known for her Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes race experiment.

The video I came across the most was a clip of the Blue-Eyed documentary trailer where Elliott repeatedly asks members of an all-white audience to stand if they want to be treated like blacks in this country are treated. Each time she asks, no one stands.

The other video that I saw posted on social media was a clip from another Elliott documentary, The Angry Eye. That one triggered memories of Ms. Cox.

In the video, A young college student is asked to read a simple sentence — which she does, correctly every time — but the teacher, Elliott, is not satisfied with the student’s efforts. Over and over, the girl reads the sentence. Each time, she’s told she’s done it wrong. The girl can’t seem to guess what Elliott wants from her, she argues and after failing to make Elliott see how unfair she is, the student breaks down crying in frustration.

Elliott points out to the rest of the class that everyday somewhere in this country a person of color experiences a similar situation.

Ms. Cox.

That’s all I could think after watching the video.

My sister Nancy didn’t say much about Ms. Cox, who was white and in her late 50’s. Other kids called her mean and seemed to be scared of her. I’d learn on my first day of 4th grade exactly what they meant.

“Giselle (Geh-zell) Santa Cruz,” she said the first time she called for me at row call in the thickest southern drawl I’d ever heard.

From my spot on the gym floor, crossed leg, I cheerfully raised my hand to announce my presence and proudly, just as my father had taught me, said: “It’s Gissela (Gee-seh-la), miss.” I had helped strangers pronounce my name correctly before. Most would to try to say it and fail before giving up (typically with a smile which I read as embarrassment). But Ms. Cox was different.

After I said my name, there was no smile on her face. Just anger. She yelled at me words I don’t remember and then, forcefully led me by the arm to a corner where my nose was to touch one of the cold tiled walls. I wasn’t allowed to turn around. And I had to stand there the entire class period.

The scene became routine all through fourth, fifth and sixth grades.

The only time I had the chance to participate was when Ms. Cox silently took roll.

Never once did she attempt to say my name. Not once did she smile and ask if she could call me something easier to pronounce. She just demanded that I be called what she thought I ought to answer to.

It was just like the scenario in the video with Elliott and the young college student: There was no compromise. I would either accept the name Ms. Cox had for me, or pay the consequences.

Eventually, I grew to hate gym class and my name.

I began to allow others to call me names — Priscella, Drewcella, Griselda — anything but Gissela. It wasn’t until after I graduated high school that I reclaimed my given name.

Ms. Cox may have been the first of such an experience, but it wouldn’t be the last.

Today my name, my ethnicity and the color of my skin are— just as it is for millions of other Americans—source of discrimination and injustice. And just as I did at the age of 9, I will continue to stand up for myself. But I – and anyone else who has these experiences — shouldn’t have to.