My 7th grade teacher preferred to call every student by their last name and the title of either Mr. or Miss depending on their gender. It was disconcerting at first but became a joke to all the students thereafter. We spent most of the year calling each other by our last names whenever we were not in the classroom. Good fun, I can assure you.
By the time I went to college and studied abroad, the Miss My Last Name phase had already worn incredibly thinly on me (Thank you, 7th grade!). However, there I was in my advanced French grammar class with a seriously stern and strict French matron. She believed in the memorization of regular and irregular conjugations, correct pronoun usage and agreement and using the subjunctive. She was scary but with lovely skin and an awesome black wardrobe that was highly enviable. The sole difference with Madame B was that she didn’t call me Mademoiselle My Last Name. She just called me by my last name. All the time! Meanwhile she called everyone else by their first name.
I found myself in a quandary. How did I approach this professor and correct her when really it wasn’t that offensive? How do I tell her when I really didn’t want to get more difficult homework? I was doing well in her class, what if my confronting her made her hate me? After all, she was French and they were still mysterious to me culturally. Was this going to be the faux pas that sent me back home to the United States interminably? (Mind you, my friends loved that she called me by my last name. So much so that still to this day they call me by my last name as a joke to the past.)
Biting the bullet does not entirely capture my plan of attack. I decided I would wait after class and inform her that my last name was not my first name. As class was dismissed and people dilly dallied to leave the classroom, I waited in the back until everyone filed out. I walked up to the professor. Gave her an enormous smile and straightened my posture. I took a deep breath. She asked me if I had a question and I point blank posed, “Why do you call me by my last name in class when you call everyone else by their first name?”
Her facial muscles poured over her chin. I wondered if I raised the question in the correct French format because I honestly wasn’t sure what had popped out of my mouth. She picked up a piece of paper which I quickly realized was her class roster. She asked me “Your name isn’t A. A.?” I told her it was but that the second A was my last name and the first A was my Christian name. She understood immediately that the way my name was presented in the roster was the opposite of what it has been with the other students. My name for some bizarre reason was presented in the European fashion, last name first and Christian name second while everyone else’s name was presented with American way (first name followed by last name). She thought they were all on the paper in the same fashion. Immediately she profusely apologized for her mistake. She then added, “Both of your names are very pretty!” I thanked her and she said she would not make the mistake again. “Incidentally, you are doing quite well in class. You should have told me earlier. Of course now that I have your name correct, I will pick on you more in class!” This is exactly what I wanted to avoid! But oh well. Always be wary of what you wish!
Thereafter, she did call on me repeatedly to answer. The difference was that I didn’t feel awkwardly singled out because of my name but because I had the right answer. I also often asked questions in class to clarify grammar rules because I could see people were perplexed. By posing my comments, it helped me get fewer questions about English grammar. I saw a direct correlation to my understanding of English grammar and how that solidified my French language education.
Standing up and asserting myself instilled a confidence in me that I didn’t have before that event. It showed me that I could express myself thoughts in another language and be understood. Madame also seemed to push me harder and appreciated my confronting her. It seemed as though I gained her respect (Seemingly because who really could tell at that point). In hindsight, I believe it did but in the moment, I was just as perplexed by her after the incident as I had been when she called me by my last name.
Oddly, once I started in the working world, I found that people often called me by my last name instead of my first name. In this regard there was no roster mistake, it showed me people don’t really care or pay attention. Often when I point out people’s mistake, they don’t even notice it. I have to explain a number of times where their error is. Sadly it’s happened numerous times – so many that I have lost count on all my fingers and toes. My retort is different these days. Instead of bothering to explain their mistake, I call them by their last names first. And when they correct me, I smarmily say ‘oh well, you have been calling me by my last name first that I thought that was the way we were communicating.” It’s impertinent but it goes both ways. If you respect me, I’ll respect you. Perhaps the reason I pointed out my teacher’s mistake was due to my respecting her or was it about respecting myself? Maybe as the years progress, I’ll figure that one out.