A father gives his daughter the world, one piece at a time. Through his love, protection and stewardship, a father can give his daughter the ultimate gift: power. The power to walk through the world independent, smart, and unencumbered. Intangible, the power that each little daughter walks out into the world with comes through the lessons and gifts that her father gives her. Legacy, honor and history were at the forefront of all of my father’s lessons. His childhood lessons for me were always about the grandiose and the lofty, his ideas larger than life. As he insisted that a lady never touch a door when in the company of a man, or that she should be able to do anything in a skirt that a man can do while dressed in pants, he was also forever pontificating about freedom and honor. While my father violated the vows of his marriage in the house my mother worked so hard to make a home for us, he also preached studiousness and duty. Though he failed to honor my mother’s intellect and achievements, he gave a litany of directives to ensure that I brought home only good, respectful and intellectual men. I work, every day, to remove many of my father’s lessons, only swim against an unimaginably strong current.
My father’s first gift came before I was even born. The sacrifice of a Gelfling inspired the name my father gave me. A girl with wings who saves the hero of The Dark Crystal, Kira impressed my father so much that he gave me her name. I wouldn’t be able to see Kira in action until very late into my childhood, but her heroism came up often. My name was given to me because of her bravery, her spirit, and her grave sacrifice at the end of the movie to save the hero and her people. My father wanted me to embody those traits, to embody the devotion displayed in that old and silly movie.
There were complications, though, in the form of the vowel. I had to be marked, you see, as a daughter of my father’s family. The “I” of Kira would never do, so it was replaced with a “Y.” Everyone on my father’s side of the family has a Y in their name, somewhere, and having no place to put it in my surname, nor, it would seem, in my middle name, my father got creative. Kyra would be the final form of the name he would give his daughter. “It is a beautiful name,” I am often told, usually after I correct a person who has improperly pronounced it.
Kira pronounced her name with a long “e” sound, as if it were spelled “Keera.” Thus, Kyra, the spelling my father chose, is pronounced the same way. Unfortunately, when people see the “y” they want to pronounce with an “ai” sound, as if it were spelled “Kaira.” It is a common misunderstanding.
There are many people with names that have odd pronunciations. Much like a small number of my classmates, every year I spent my first three days of school correcting pronunciation of the name my father gave me. People would smile and apologize, using the name correctly from then on, and nothing would be said of it. When I would get annoyed at my unique and oddly spelled name, my father would tell me to take heart and have pride. “Your name is beautiful, special, interesting,” he would tell me. “Your name is unique, and you won’t meet many other people with your name. I did you a favor, I promise.” I continued to politely correct people as this mispronounced my name, learning to do it simply and quietly.
My father wanted sons, but he was prideful of his daughters. My sister got an easier to pronounce name, and a pretty one too; not one that you hear very often but still considered “common.” When we were teenagers, my father decided to enroll us in a local Kung-fu school to give us exercise and something to do. “Besides,” my father said to us, “I want to make sure you can protect yourselves if you need to.” No longer being a member of our household, he was convinced that we were no longer safe at home. How often the echoes of this lesson come, as I find myself checking the doors and windows three times before going to bed when my husband is away on business.
The Kung-fu school was large and busy, full of students and classes, and all run by a bonafide Kung-fu Master, an older black man. Southern born and mindful of our elders, my sister and I gave the Master the respect he deserved, but also a wide berth. Father, however, revered him, and spent a lot of time getting into the Master’s good graces. Father decided to sign up for classes, too, and the three of us worked out there two nights a week. As we improved, we were tested, and finally, it was time for the assignment of belts. No-belt to yellow belt, the first “level.”
We performed our tests as a class, and passed as a class. Each of us was given a belt and a certificate by the Master himself, signifying our growth. Called up one at a time, we stood before the Master, gave a bow, accepted our belt and certificate, and shook his hand before having a seat. Since the distribution came in alphabetical order, my name was called almost last. He called my name, but pronounced it “Kaira.”
“It’s Kyra, sir,” I said quietly and politely as I bowed.
The Master chuckled, and said my name correctly. “I have many students,” he said to the class, “I don’t always get the name right.”
I put on a warm smile, bowed again, and returned to my group.
When class was over and the three of us piled into our car, my father congratulated us. We had accomplished something and felt good about it. Each of us couldn’t wait to wear our belts to the next class.
“You probably shouldn’t correct the Master next time,” Father said in passing. I shrugged my teenager-shrug and didn’t reply. I hadn’t even thought about it when I gave my correction. The experience was as normal as sunshine to me.
Weeks passed and training went on. Before long, it was time to ascend in level again. Yellow belt to yellow-and-white belt. We became more excited as we prepared, and when the evening finally came, we were a class ready to go. We tested as a class, passed as a class, and the Master came to proudly give us our new belts. Again, I waited for my turn. Again, he called me “Kaira.”
“It’s Kyra, sir,” I whispered and bowed.
The Master chuckled and said my name correctly. “I have many students,” he said to the class, “I don’t always get the name right.”
I put on a warm smile, bowed again, and returned to my group.
In the car, my father wasn’t so passive. “That man is a Master of a martial art. You need to treat him with respect. Don’t correct him in front of the class.”
“But it’s my name,” I whined, too tired to argue.
My father’s cold silence filled the rest of the ride home.
The Kung-fu Master always seemed happy to see us when we came in to work out and train, and over the next few weeks, we studied hard. One more color level before we could start exploring weapons! My sister and I were also excited because we could perform our skill sets together for the class. We practiced at home to perfect our techniques and the weeks went by quickly. It was time again: Yellow-and-white belt to green belt.
We tested as a class, passed as a class, and the Master came to proudly give us our new belts. Knots filled my stomach as I prayed that the Master would get my name right this time. To my disappointment, “Kaira” came instead.
“It’s Kyra, sir,” I whispered and bowed.
The Master chuckled and said my name correctly. “I have many students,” he said to the class, “I don’t always get it right.”
My agitated father broke the respectful silence of the ceremony to mumble, “She’s sorry, sir.”
The Master waved his hand, clearly unconcerned.
I frowned as a bowed, and returned to the group.
“I told you not to correct the Master, didn’t I?” My father screamed as soon as we got into the car. Other families were still getting into their cars and that is the only reason why I didn’t get it in the parking lot.
“It’s my name father, and he didn’t seem to care,” I replied, bewildered.
“He is a Kung-fu Master, he’s dedicated his entire life to his craft and his skill. He doesn’t care about your name, Kyra! Your name doesn’t matter to him!” My father had ripped out of the parking lot. My sister sat next to me, silently crying.
“It’s my name, Father, and he should know it by now.”
“Your name doesn’t matter!” My father screamed at me. “It doesn’t matter! You are being exceptionally rude when you correct him. Do not correct the Master again!”
I cried that night not because of what my father said to me but how he said it. No daughter wants to be screamed at by their father for any reason.
And during the next belt ceremony, my last belt ceremony, I did not correct the Master.
Suddenly, my high school teachers during my junior year were able to get away with calling me “Kaira” for an entire semester. It took a classmate calling me Kyra in front of a teacher for them to figure out that they’d been pronouncing it wrong. “Why would you do that?” My English teacher asked me. I didn’t have a good answer for her.
My father taught me, powerfully, that in context I am of little consequence. In rooms of powerful people, my very personhood is insignificant–Even when that powerful person isn’t actually so powerful, and his influence on my life or community are really quiet irrelevant. As I was, as I am, in the presence of some others, my very existence does not matter. Sometimes this lesson comes to me, in the moments of failure, in the moments before probable failure.
So in that precious time of adolescent identity building, when the opportunity came to start building again, I concentrated on presence. I would take on an air of dignity and prestige, to be worthy of recognition, even if I was absolutely worthless in the eyes of some. I would create my own power and lend it to my own name. My name would matter to at least one person in the world.
And when my father finally flew all the way around the world to marry a woman who would deliver him the sons that would carry on his name, I didn’t let it destroy me. My father thought that I wasn’t capable of giving the name of his fathers to future generations, simply because of my womanhood. I’ve made sure that both of my sons hold the rare maiden names of both my mother and my mother-in-law. If the lessons are worth learning, they can live on forever.
I have four names, and so do my sons. My father taught me the power of names and their links to dreams and family. With their names, my sons were given many burdens: the burdens of history and titles, the burden of ancient bloodlines and the burden of geography. They have beautiful names, and I thought about them very carefully.
My father often told me that we must do things not because they are easy, but simply because they are hard. It was one of his favorite lines and favorite lessons. This lesson, I think, was his greatest one of all and the only one I’ll consciously keep. How easy it would have been to simply allow my father to fade away from my life. How easy to deny him the honor of escorting me down the aisle. It would be so easy to allow my father to think for the rest of his days that he is a good man. Unfortunately for him, I’m a good student. So I’ve always chosen the hard way, to remind him that despite himself I turned out better than he could imagine. Not because of his doing, but because of the strength and power that he thought that he could giveth and taketh away at his whim. When the echoes of his lessons come from the corners of an empty room, I remind myself that I own my power now. My name is my own and so is my narrative.