Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Calling the authority figures in your life by their first names

This subject came up yesterday when one of my former teachers, Gina Pumphrey, posted an extremely nice comment in response to a blog post. I thanked her in a return comment, calling her "Gina" even though it made me squirm as I typed it.

Why? Because I have never been comfortable calling a teacher by his/her first name. Just can't do it. I know I'm 42 years old and almost a quarter century removed from high school, but I have a tough time seeing these people as peers.

Is that common? Is it just me? Take my high school track coach, Mr. Benz, for example. There was a time when Mr. Benz would tell me to go out on the track and run, say, four laps as hard as I could. And by gosh, that's exactly what I did. There was no questioning a coach. You just did what you were told.

It has been several years since I've seen Mr. Benz, but I can assure you that the last time our paths crossed, I called him "Mr. Benz." Not "Al." Not even "Coach" or "Coach Benz." He was, and always will be, Mr. Benz to me.

My daughter Elissa and her AP English classmates received a very nice note from their teacher, Mrs. Hotchkiss, just prior to graduating a couple of weeks ago. In it, Mrs. Hotchkiss gave them some great advice on how one goes about succeeding in the world. She signed the letter "Mrs. Hotchkiss (aka, Mindy, because it's time)".

I suppose it's one thing if a teacher insists that you begin using their first name. But that doesn't mean I have to like it. I know Elissa finds it a little hard, too. I hate to tell her, but she'll probably feel the same way 20 or 30 years from now.

Part of this, of course, stems from the amazing realization we all come to at some point that teachers are actual people. Yes, they have normal lives outside of school. I was probably in 5th or 6th grade when this very-obvious-but-still-stunning revelation occurred to me. They're real people! With families and houses and everything. They don't actually live in the school.

And they have real first names which they use with each other and, in time, with their students. But I have a hard time returning the favor. To me, no matter how old I get, teachers will always be people to look up to and even revere.

And if they tell me to jump, I'll not only ask how high, I'll also find out if they want me to correct the problems I got wrong on my 10th-grade geometry final. Mr. Bezjak would be the only one who would care, really, but old habits die hard.


  1. I can relate! After graduating from John Carroll University I became friends with one of my professors thanks to a shared love for sailboat racing. I ended up racing aboard his boat a number of times including a 3 night race from Detroit to Mackinac. During this race some of his family members were aboard and they kept giving me a hard time as I bounced between calling him "Mr. Last Name" and "Rich".

  2. I get it, really! Only in the last few years have I called Mr. Gerber "Gordon," although we met as adults. Our principals since then -- most younger than I -- were easily called by their first names, as well as our most recent superintendents (unless, for both, in the presence of students -- there are unwritten rules about that!). My daughter, on the other hand, despite her quite proper upbringing, has easily adapted to using the first names of her colleagues with whom she teaches high school -- even though she was their student less than ten years ago. No real way to figure it out...I guess, as long as the name used isn't offensive and/or inappropriate, the main thing is to keep communicating...all is good through sustained communication, by any name. :)

  3. My sister's kids all had Danna for a teacher at some point at WMS and always seemed weirded out when I called her that vs. Miss Hall or Mrs Husted.

  4. Old habits die hard, right? I ran into Bill Kendra at Home Depot (where he was working just for fun) and couldn't bring myself to call him Bill. Probably never will :)