Names and Invisibility

On the first day of my 12th grade British Literature class, I chose a seat in the front row. The teacher had a great reputation and I wanted to be right up front in what I hoped would be a great class.

The teacher asked each of us to say our names. When I said mine, she said “You don’t look like a `Melissa.’ You look more like a `____’ That’s the name I will call you.”

Seriously, it’s true.

Do you see that blank space I typed in the paragraph above? So many years later, I still don’t want to reveal the “name” that teacher imposed on me.

Nearly as bad as the new name, was the new seat.

When the boy behind me introduced himself, she said, “Demetrius. Now that’s a nice name. With a name like that, you get a front row seat.” Calling me by the name I already hated, she told me to “trade places with Demetrius.”

In an instant, I lost my front row seat. I also lost the view of anything but the back of Demetrius’ head. He was a football player, tall and thick, and I could not see over him.

Demetrius, by the way, told the teacher he wanted to be called “Jim.” She refused.

Lessons Learned

I share this story not just because my experiences as a student help shape me as a teacher. I also share it because I think what is saddest about this story is not what happened to me, but what happened to her.

What happened to her along the journey of teaching that enabled her to be so insensitive and disrespectful to one of her students? More importantly, how can we make sure it doesn’t happen to us?

Yes, that’s me in 12 grade.

From the moment that teacher erased my name, she failed to see who I really was. And that’s a shame for a teacher.

She had no idea that I was passionate about reading and writing. She didn’t realize I was enrolled in not one, not two, but three English classes that semester. She didn’t know that I sweated over every homework assignment because I cared about the subject matter so much. She didn’t know that I wanted to become a writer.

Teaching Today

Our relationships with our students are fragile. We know that a negative comment can bring a student down, and requires many more authentically positive comments to just bring the relationship back to neutral, if that’s possible.

Sometimes, an off-handed comment can damage a relationship beyond repair.

Our pace in the classroom is so fast. We have to react to so many things outside the scope of teaching our content. This makes it easy to fly off the handle or to be impulsive. There are times that I say things or do things in class that I regret later.

When this happens, and I finally get my head back on straight, I do my best to publicly apologize. I tell the student I was wrong, that I am sorry, and I ask them to forgive me.

But what happens when we do the opposite of what my senior-year teacher did? What happens during moments of genuine and personal interaction with our students? Everything improves, of course.

In my experience, students who feel our warmth are more motivated and learn more. They trust us, and they are more open to feedback about their work.

What teacher wouldn’t want that?

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5 Comments

  • G M

    Reply Reply June 22, 2017

    I wish I knew then what I know now

  • Morgan Hatch

    Reply Reply June 23, 2017

    That is a powerful reminder of the impact teachers have – a flip comment the teacher for who knows what reason, but she was a bully. Oddly, bullies tend to forget what they did while the rest of us carry it around like a suitcase of bricks. Good of you, Mel, to turn it around.

    • Melissa

      Reply Reply June 28, 2017

      Morgan, I always appreciate your analysis. You are so right that we remember what teachers did to us. When we are at our best, as teachers ourselves, we try to better for our students. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Stephanie Simon Block

    Reply Reply June 25, 2017

    Having not only one, but two “out of the box” type kids, our experience with public education carried with it tremendous criticism and shame. Wish there were many more teachers like you. Thanks for inspiring others with your blog.

    • Melissa

      Reply Reply June 28, 2017

      Stephanie, thanks for taking the time to read this, and for making connections to your life.

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