EDITOR’S NOTE:This article was originally published by youth communications and is republished here with permission. YC is a nonprofit publisher of stories and curricula written by teens to help educators strengthen young people’s social and emotional skills.
In fifth grade, I moved from Lagos, Nigeria, to New York City. I immediately knew that my name, Boluwatife (pronounced bow-luh-wah-tea-feh), is a tongue twister for many Americans. They just can’t do it right.
At school, almost everyone trashed my name. With each mispronunciation, the laughter of my ignorant classmates was never far behind, saying that it sounded like a witch’s enchantment.
I wondered why my parents had given my younger sister, Tobi, a name that was so much easier for people in this new country to pronounce. I was desperate to find something to like about my name. From other Yoruba speakers, I learned that the name Boluwatife means “the will of God.” I already knew that my sister’s name means “God is great,” which increased my suspicion that they favored her over me. I thought that my parents had named me after her because of her decision to have me, that they had left it to the will of God. I never sought reassurance from them and kept these feelings bottled up.
Meanwhile, I was feeling overwhelmed by the continuous mispronunciation of Boluwatife at school. It was as if part of who I am was being discarded. She wanted to be like everyone else with a name that was easy to pronounce. My middle name is Viola, after my aunt who sheltered us when we first moved to the United States. So, a year after my move, I decided to make Viola my unofficial first name everywhere. Just as Aunt Viola had sheltered us, her name became my shelter.
Every time my teachers called roll, I watched their facial expressions, and when I saw them pause or look puzzled, I assumed they were wrestling with my name. Although I introduced myself as Viola to everyone, the time sheet still showed Boluwatife; that was the one thing she couldn’t change. To combat this, I raised my hand and yelled “present”, before they even tried to say it. Soon, Boluwatife was rarely mentioned.
So the years passed until one day in tenth grade history class. We were learning about foreigners coming to Ellis Island. The teacher explained the different ways that foreigners tried to better fit into American cultural and social norms, saying that immigrants often changed their names to Western names. I shifted my gaze from the loudly ticking clock to my small desk as I rested my head on my arm. So, I heard them calling me by my name.
“Viola here is the perfect example,” he said, “She also looked for a more Western-sounding name to fit in America.” Suddenly the clock didn’t seem so loud. Though I wished it would drown out everything with its insistent ticking sound, the classroom fell silent.
In a whisper, I quickly replied, “I’m not a good example because Viola is my Surname. It’s on my birth certificate. I didn’t change it.” He might as well have said, “I’m American! I fit in!” I was surprised to find that I was still seen as Boluwatife, despite all my efforts to the contrary. It was frustrating to admit, but trying so hard to be Viola had made me uncomfortable. I thought it was worth the awkwardness if it meant I could fit in perfectly, but I didn’t fit in after all.
As soon as the dismissal bell rang, I forcefully packed my things and flew out of class. Being called out in class made me feel angry and sad. Sad because a small part of me knew he was right. me What trying to fit in. Angry because what gave him the right to call me? I had embarrassed myself despite my desperate efforts to remain inconspicuous.
A year later, in grade 11, I was in the counselors’ lounge at lunch, drawn to a group of laughing, whispering girls in my European history class. They were huddled over a small circular table filling out applications to be peer mentor. They asked me if I wanted one and I applied on a whim to be included in a group of people sharing laughs.
To my surprise, I was accepted, and by the following semester, I had six trainees under my wing. The goal of the program was to create a supportive environment for incoming ninth graders, strengthening their relationships with older students to ease the transition to high school.
I made flashcards with different prompts for open conversations about self-care and affirmations. He frequently reminded them that their authentic self was more than enough. I usually participated in the activities, but I didn’t allow myself to be as vulnerable as they were. At the time, I told myself it was because I wanted to be the voice of reason or a “strong mentor,” but deep down I knew I lacked his courage.
With one of my trainees, let’s call him John, I felt like I was talking to a brick wall. He had his headphones playing music half the time. The other half, he made fun of some of my other trainees. He rarely agreed to participate in the activities, even when I resorted to bribery, promising pizza parties in exchange for his participation. Despite all this, I kept trying. In meetings with other mentors, I sought their input and suggestions on how I could make him eager to participate.
So it was a surprise when, near the end of the show, John texted me, “Hey, thanks, I’m going through a lot, but thanks.” I cried and realized that I was having a legitimate impact on the lives of my trainees. It was helping them see themselves differently.
It also made me feel like a hypocrite. I preached self-love, understanding, and appreciation, but I didn’t espouse any of those values. I hid who I was for fear of rejection. In search of acceptance, I took on a name and a personality that was not true to me. This was the wake up call I never knew I needed. I realized that he had suppressed sadness and was angry with himself. I had felt guilty for leaving Boluwatife behind all this time. I was sorry I hadn’t given him the chance he deserved.
Although we no longer live with Aunt Viola and my relationship with her has become rocky, I will always be grateful for the name. However, it was time to restart my relationship with Boluwatife and recover the part of me that had changed to fit my distorted idea of what society would accept.
As my thinking changed, so did my ability to see the good in my name. I thought that flying 5,250 miles from the land it came from had caused its light and power to dim, but I was wrong. Now, I see that the name Boluwatife gives me the opportunity to choose for myself which path to take in life, the path that suits me best. After all, the bearers of the name are said to ride out the turmoil. I used to wonder why I was so unlucky, why I couldn’t have a “normal” sounding name. But I cannot and should not tone down to fit in with a crowd.
During the freshman year of the pandemic and my senior year of high school, one of my cousins started calling me “Tife” (pronounced “tea-fe,” with the “fe” being the “fe” in fennel). I liked it so much that I decided to change my name from Viola to Tife on WhatsApp. My family noticed this change and also started calling me “Tife”. They even stopped introducing me as Viola.
At first, I was concerned that Tife’s choice would contradict my renewed relationship with my full name. So, I realized that Tife is a nickname, not different from Liz for Elizabeth. As the bearer of the name, I can have them both.
Recently, for the first time in eight years, I introduced myself as Tife to a group of fellow writers. I felt like I was presenting a reformed version of myself, one that was new, even to me. The wave of confidence that came with my name felt good. These writers were understanding, frequently asking for the correct pronunciation of my name, making sure I was comfortable with their best shot. I realize that not everyone I meet will treat the pronunciation of my name with such patience, but I will settle no more. My name is Boluwatife Ogunbodede.