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A Principal's Blog, Toward a civil society: What's Your Name?

“What’s your name?”

Three words that were packed with meaning for my two sons as they grew up. Before they left each morning for school it was the question I asked. As they walked through the door to get in Melanie’s car and head off to a big day, I’d stop them and simply ask, “What’s your name?”

Their enthusiastic response was “COWAN!”

Growing up, my gracious teachers always said “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” Asking my boys “What's your name?” when I gave them their name might seem like a stupid question. It is obvious. Their name is my name.

But, for us, it meant so much more than the label handed down from generation to generation. When I asked them that question, it was a reminder to them that they were walking out into a world where they needed to represent certain values: kindness, patience, joy, long-suffering, care, dignity, grace, respect, honor, service, working to their potential, being an overcomer and helping those who are overcome.


“What’s your name?”


In a world where culture is ever-changing, where language changes meaning and new words are coined, new technologies drive us rather than us driving technologies, and the actions of bulldozing, self-serving, and shout downs are becoming new values, I wanted to instill in my sons that certain values are time-tested, welcomed in societies throughout history, and offer a better way. Certain values transcend time, the news of the day, the politics of the day, the debates of the day, the ugliness that they might face on any given day.

My boys are men now. They are on their own living as adults and finding their own way. But, on the occasion of a recent visit home as they walked out the door I stopped them and said, “What’s your name?” They responded, “COWAN!”

The point was, no matter if living in my home as a child or visiting as an adult, our agreement with each other to represent and hold high their family’s heritage and values still stood.

I encourage us all to ask “What’s your name?” What does your name represent? How is it perceived in the community? My own wasn't always represented well. I had to consciously make sure it rose from the depths of alcoholism, jail time, ignorance and poverty ingrained in my family lineage. It is only by the example and care of others that I was able to go down that path and make a new path for the Cowan name.

And, this was the second lesson wrapped up in the question “What's your name?” each morning. The understanding between us was that there was a lot of effort, time, work, and trust built into this name as I sought to change the perspective of the Cowan name in my community. For my boys, the message was “Continue in this manner. Don't drag it back into the mud. Hold it high. Represent.”

In a way, I gave them an impossible task. In knowing this, I had to offer them the grace of second chances as they grew; just as others offer me this grace in my own life to this day as I make my own mistakes and deal with my own shortcomings as a mere human being.

Perhaps, we should all ask ourselves these three words each morning as we come to school to teach the next generation. What difference might it make toward a more civil society if all parents asked their kids each morning those three words and their children understood the meaning and impact behind the question? What might it mean for our workplaces to reflect on what our name means there, and in restaurants as we interact with those serving, cooking, doing dishes, on the roads as we drive in a civil manner, in our discussions with teachers, in our interactions with those behind the counters of organizations in our community?

Just this morning, as I walked through classrooms and completed some teacher observations, a young man stopped me and proudly said “Mr. Cowan, I know this is the Archuleta School District and do you know that my name is Archuleta?” He asked me this with a certain pride of a name that has a legacy reaching back a long time. In his own way he understands that he carries this legacy with him and already feels the need to represent its values.

In a time of political divides, intense school board meetings around the Nation, a technologically hyper-connected but socially disconnected social life, the stressors of the ongoing covid response, can I ask that we all ask “What's your name?”