Names Have Meaning by
(35 Stories)

Prompted By Inequality

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“Football” by ebertek; licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A family down the block from us took in foster kids. My parents encouraged us to go out of our way to befriend them, because they had already had a lot of bad things happen in their lives, and feeling lonely or excluded would hurt them all the more. Being one who has frequently felt like an outsider in social situations, I was completely down with that.

A family down the block from us took in foster kids.

Of them all, I only remember two. One was named Jose.

Jose Martinez was probably from Puerto Rico. He undoubtedly told me where he was born, but that information I have long forgotten. Most of the Hispanic people in my town back in the mid-sixties were from Puerto Rico. I know this because certain relatives of mine would moan and complain endlessly about “the PRs” and how they were “taking over” and that they “should go back where they came from.” I think they had seen West Side Story too many times, but missed the underlying message.

Jose arrived during the summer. His English was accented but very good, which compensated for my complete lack of Spanish. A slightly built, shy and quiet kid, much like myself. We quickly became friends, playing all the usual games and sports. We both tended to get relegated to the outfield or the end of the batting order, so we bonded.

That Fall, 1964, Jose and I entered third grade. The teacher did the usual first-day thing, having any new kids introduce themselves. I think Jose was the only one. When he said his name, the teacher (a hateful person who shall remain nameless) frowned, thought a bit, and said “Jose? That doesn’t sound right. We’ll call you “Joseph” which is what Jose really means. That sounds much better. Right? OK then.”

I don’t know what reply, if any, Jose made to that. Probably nothing. As I said, he was shy and quiet. I know all too well how ingrained it becomes to not rock the boat when you have been raised in a maelstrom. But I sat there in my seat and fumed. I was furious, for my friend and the hatefulness of it all. It seemed terribly unfair to take away even his name and his heritage, when he had so little else. I was shocked that a teacher could be so cruel to a student, a kid. To my friend.

I never once called him Joseph.

Whatever time we had together after that is forgotten. He was probably relocated, or sent back to his family, soon after we started school that fall. Foster kids used to get bounced around like Spaldeens back then. But I’ve never forgotten him, or the lesson that knowing him taught me.

I hope he has had a good life.

Profile photo of Dave Ventre Dave Ventre

A lot of things have happened in my life, but now I am mainly in it for Gina and the mountain biking.

Tags: Childhood, friends, racism, names
Characterizations: moving


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    You showed true compassion and empathy, unlike that hateful teacher, Dave. I agree, names have meaning.

    • Dave Ventre says:

      Thanks, Betsy! I credit my parents. For all their many missteps in child raising, they were compassionate people who somehow escaped absorbing the standard bigotries of their upbringings. Every member of their generation that I can recall, as well as the one before, harbored all the usual racial and ethnic biases. Many of them harbored several, and vehemently. Mom and Dad somehow wound up as odd-duck iconoclasts. The definitely followed their own paths. That is probably how they ended up with each other in an ethnically mixed marriage when such things were not fully accepted.

  2. Thanx Dave for the poignant childhood memory of Jose, your story beautifully written as always.
    I too hope Jose had a good life.

  3. Marian says:

    This resonates so much with the story of my mother’s name, Dave, that it brought tears to my eyes. Perfectly rendered … Alas, this is what happened then, and even now. I have a dear work colleague named Bharat (from India) who insists on going by “Bill” because he’s concerned about misunderstanding and prejudice. How sad.

  4. Suzy says:

    Wonderful story, Dave, thanks for sharing it with us. You mention that you remember two of the foster children down the street, and one of them was Jose. I’m curious now about the other one – perhaps not relevant to this story, but something about that other child was memorable too.

    • Dave Ventre says:

      The other kid (I think his name was Harold) became more friendly with my brother than he did with me. He was more boisterous and outgoing than Jose, as my brother was compared to me. My brother met him years later on the street in New York City. Harold was turning tricks on the street (late 70s-early 80s; it was a crazy time). He actually propositioned my brother, who recognized him. When my brother said “Harold?” he recognized my brother and ran away. I guess his life didn’t turn out so well.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    Me too, Dave. How cruel to take a child’s name and identity from him. I would like to hope this wouldn’t happen in school these days.

  6. Khati Hendry says:

    Thanks for another great story, Dave. There is nothing like a kid with a friend to illuminate the arbitrary barriers of the adult world. Or an adult with a friend–may we all keep the child’s openness in our hearts..

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