Yesterday a new student joined my class. He showed me his timetable to confirm that he belonged in this room, and I asked him his name. He replied with the name written on the paper, then followed up with, “but call me xxx”. So I did.
I know there’s a lot of fuss right now about teachers using the name students ask to be called. (Brief background: in the US, some people are demanding that teachers inform parents when children ask to change names or pronouns; some people are demanding that teachers not do this, in part to protect vulnerable students; Canada’s laws are different, but the same issue is cropping up.) Just before school started this year, a colleague in my school board posted a thread on Twitter about why we should use students’ preferred names, and spiteful commenters piled on, calling the teacher a “groomer” and worse. I was astonished by their ignorance. Well, maybe not astonished – I’m too old to pretend that I’m not a little cynical about the outrage; but I found it, at a minimum, fatiguing.
Here’s what they don’t know: teachers have long used students’ preferred names. I’ve been calling students what they want to be called pretty much forever, and I have never – not once – phoned a parent to let them know about it. My first memory of this is from years ago when a student asked to be called Kronos. Kronos! My instinct was to say no, mostly because this 8th grader was decidedly neither the king of the Titans nor a god of Time, but before I could say a word, the teacher standing next to me said, “Ok.” So we called the child Kronos. We didn’t phone home or worry about report cards. We just called him Kronos until he asked us to stop.
In that same school I had a student who went by Sarah while her family called her Sally. I’ve had students ask me to call them by their nicknames, middle names or last names (there are a lot of Emmas and Mohammeds out there; sometimes these name changes are a godsend). Before parent-teacher conferences, I often ask students what their parents call them, so that I can communicate effectively.
For a lot of young people, names are a good place for a bit of experimentation. When we were little, my sister wanted to be called Christy instead of Kim. I have no idea why. I grew up in the South, so I knew plenty of kids whose first names were someone else’s last name – Madison, Perrin, Riley come to mind. When I was in my early teens, I longed for a name that could be mistaken for a boy’s. I blame Little Women for my dreams of being called “Jo” or “Alex” while behaving in unladylike ways. Later, I was awed when Shannon Faulkner took advantage of her gender-neutral name to become the first woman to enroll in the then all-male Citadel. Meanwhile, my aunt and uncle named my cousin Andrew, insisting that he not be called Andy; this worked fine until someone started calling him Drew. These days, he answers to either.
In the classroom, I’ve had students use a gender-neutral version of their own name, use a name frequently associated with the opposite gender, and use a name that, frankly, no parent in their right mind would choose. (I think most of us would try to talk our kid out of “Kronos.”) Sometimes their parents know; sometimes they don’t. It’s never really been an issue.
Look, I’m not naive: I know that people are using the name issue as a proxy for homophobia and transphobia. They say “name” and mean something else altogether. They’ve worked themselves into hysterics over this and decided that when teachers respect a child’s request to be called by a certain name or pronoun, something terrible will happen. In all my years of teaching, calling a child what they want to be called has never – not once – made a child feel less welcome; it’s never interfered with their learning; it’s never made them unhappy. I have 26 years worth of experience suggesting that using a child’s preferred name or pronouns won’t change who they are – but it might make them feel a little more like themselves.
So, when a child asks me to call them a particular name, I say “yes”. Why wouldn’t I?