Where have all the Donnas gone?
Because of the increased potential for burnout and the favorable retirement rules that were in effect over the intervening decades, I dare say there are very few, if any, public school teachers who were working in 1968 that are still in the classroom today. They'd be at least 66 years old, for crying out loud; no one's feet or voice could possibly hold out that long.
Hypothetically, though, suppose - just suppose - that, however unlikely, one such teacher, Miss Inez Inkwell, whether out of dedication, economic need, lack of a social life or sheer inertia - remains on the faculty today. The things Miss Inkwell could tell us about the changes in the educational system over the past five decades!
Inez might shock us with real-life horror stories about how dramatic societal changes and the breakdown of the traditional family have made it more difficult for children to focus on school. She might comment on educational reformers' insistence that students spend more time learning how to pass standardized assessment tests than mastering the art of writing a coherent paragraph or identifying where Egypt, Ecuador and Slovakia are located on a map. She'd wistfully recall the good old days when she wrote on a chalk board rather than on a smart board.
Most of all, she'd say, the names have changed, and not just to protect the innocent. The names have actually changed!
Robert, Joseph, Thomas, Michael, James and John were, by far, the most numerous names among the male classmates in my high school class of 240-plus students. We also had our Geralds, Harolds, Charlies and Richards, and scores of guys with names that were less numerous, but still very recognizable and certifiably ordinary. The fact that our class president's first name was Walter is proof positive that as late as 1968, it was possible to be named Walter and still be considered a cool guy.
Our adolescent male souls were gladdened daily by the smiles of the Lindas, Patricias, Barbaras, Mary Anns and Ann Maries, Kathleens and Kathys, Joanies and Joannes, Donnas, Eleanors, Bonnies and Marlenes who sat next to us in class or acknowledged us in the hallways as we "passed" classes.
If you yelled out these names in the hallway of any American high school today, there would be very few kids who would stop and turn around. Many of the "traditional" boys names do survive, of course, but the vast majority of girls' names that were common in the 1960s are, for all intents and purposes, as extinct today as the stegosaurus.
If you want to get any reaction from today's pool of high schoolers, your best bet is to yell at the top of your voice for Ryan, Tyler, Austin, Bradley, Peyton, Lauren, Samantha or Alyssa. But if you call out for Donna and Linda, you might eventually connect with one of the lunch ladies.
According to the Social Security Administration, the top 10 names for babies born during the 1950s were, for boys, John, Michael, Robert, John, David, William, Richard, Thomas, Mark and Charles, and girls, Mary, Linda, Patricia, Susan, Deborah, Barbara, Debra (prompted no doubt by the very beautiful and extremely classy actress, Debra Kerr), Karen, Nancy and Donna. Class of 1968-ers were born around 1950. So, circa 1968, you would encounter loads of people with these names at the Teen Palace dances and at the Knoebels roller rink.
Believe it or not, Social Security has kept track of popular names for all Americans born since the 1870s. There was actually little change in boys' names from the 1870s through the 1960s (although you'd be more likely to run into a Clarence or an Otis in the older days). But if you were hanging around a Fourth of July picnic around the turn of the century, you'd see young guys with mostly traditional first names vying for the attention of young ladies with names such as Minnie, Ida, Helen, Ethel, Clara and Bertha.
Among the most popular baby names in the 1990s (the decade when today's high school students were born) were Michael, Christopher, Matthew, Joshua, Nicholas, Andrew and Tyler, for boys, and Jessica, Ashley, Emily, Sarah, Samantha, Amanda, Brittany, Elizabeth, Taylor and Megan, for girls.
It was in the mid- to late-1980s, I think, when "baby name books" came into vogue. Couples who were anticipating a blessed event spent an inordinate amount of time carefully assessing each of the 30,000-odd first names published therein. Such name-surfing has no doubt been ramped up even more in the Internet age.
According to a November 2010 article by Clara Moskowitz on the website Live Science, many parents of today crave uniqueness in their babies' names. They want their little darlings' names to be one-of-a-kind. That's why, when you happen to peruse a school honor roll, you see so many variations in spellings of what is basically the same name or even some names that the parents created themselves.
I admire parents' commitment to doing all they can to make their children distinctive in the eyes of the world, but I also feel sorry for teachers who have to quickly learn and master the complex spelling of some of their students' names. And the absence of Donnas, Patricias and Kathleens from future generations is truly cause for lamentation.
A footnote to the name craze: In 1968, it seemed like you'd have to cross county lines to find another "Jacob." However, "Jacob" emerged as the most popular boy's name in 2011. Not surprising, since there has actually been a major proliferation of Jacobs these past 20 years.
Now that's a trend we can all applaud.
(Betz is an assistant editor at The News-Item.)