How many times have you been a part of a conversation that went something like this: “Hello, my name is _________________. What’s your name?”
Relationships start with names. They are among the first words we learn to speak, including names like Momma and Daddy. Toddlers learn their names and ask them of others. The first letters we learn to write are the ones that make up our name. We wait for our names to be called in school, and call it “being recognized.”
Names matter. When names are left out, the story is incomplete. When a person goes unnamed, it suggests that they are not nearly as important as the people whose names we know. Our names are the first gift our parents give us, and they are absolutely fundamental to our identity and our lives.
There is a short scene in the film “Hidden Figures” that is about names. While meeting the engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and staff at NASA, the first Mercury Seven astronauts are hurried off to another appointment before they can greet the African-American women who work at NASA. John Glenn—who we’ve just barely met in the film, but who we know from history will become the first American to orbit the earth—refuses to be hurried and insists on greeting these women, as well.
And that’s when he shakes the hands and asks the names of the women who are the heroes of the film. They each say their names and claim their place in the story: Dorothy Vaughan, the supervisor of the women who work as “computers;” Katherine Johnson, the mathematician whose work will help make Glenn’s historic mission a success; and Mary Jackson, determined to fulfill her dream of becoming the first African-American woman on the engineering team. Their stories are the heart of the film—and it begins with their names.
Watching the scene where John Glenn greets these three NASA pioneers and unsung American heroes, I began to reflect on how not knowing the names and stories of these talented and brave women gave us an incomplete understanding of history and the true American story of the conquest of space. The story was incomplete.
Films like these are important because they help us understand—sometimes in new ways—that the American story is a complex one of many different perspectives, with contrasting yet interrelated lives and history. We are immeasurably enriched by knowing and respecting these contrasting stories. And we have an obligation, it seems to me, to make sure that the stories that will eventually become our history are told as fully and honestly as possible.
Every person you meet today has a name—and a story, a history, a family, a journey that makes their life unique and significant. Names have power. Relationships of meaning begin by knowing names and learning stories. Names enrich and nurture how we do our work each day. Truly knowing one another, and those we serve, is essential to fulfilling our mission.
(Photo Credit: Hopper Stone)