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What Did You Just Call Me?

May 30, 2009


In grade two, my French teacher called roll, checking each child present and pronouncing our names in a complicated tongue. Pierre, Jerome, Marie, Jacques. I was so excited, and waited with hands neatly folded, wondering what I would be called in my first foreign language. My surname begins with “m”, so even though it was torture inching through G, H and L, at least I wasn’t a Thomas or a Vanderburgh.

At last, it was my turn to say, “oui, prĂ©sent!” Madame smiled, checked, continued: “Bon! D.M.?” I didn’t want to be rude, but she must’ve forgotten the bit that goes “…et, en francais, tu t’appelle…” and reveals the secret of my name. I raised my hand, used my politest voice of all time, thought I had been more than patient with her oversight. My excitement deflated as Madame explained there is no French for “A.”, then carried on calling attendance like this was no big deal.

I wasn’t the only kid whose name remained unchanged, but I didn’t care. I wanted a “Pierre” to call my own, and instead got saddled with a name that was hard enough to handle in English without this extra let-down. No one could remember “A.”, so I was called Andrea, Amy, Anna, Samantha. I was a shy kid, and found myself answering to these mistaken identities rather than piping up to correct people.

Now, my name is relatively popular, alongside Chrystal, Tiffany, Amber and a host of good stripper names. In 1980, there were no pencils embossed with my name, no book characters, no famous A.s, no other A. in my grade that forced teachers to distinguish between us by handing out cute nicknames. The classroom was jammed with Scotts and Jennifers, kids whose shared traits singled them out as individuals. I was never A.M.; there was no A.P. Kids never had to correct the teacher, “no, no, you mean A. with the long hair–this is A. with the blue backpack!”

Even worse, in Latin, my name meant “lovable”, which was just embarrassing. No kid wants to talk about love! Other names were hitched to legacies, tough actions, exotic birds and freaky histories. And now, no French version? This was such a ripoff!


I grew up in a tiny, WASPy town, a place where it was not only possible but also acceptable to say, “You know Sarah? The black one at swimming class?” No one had a surname for a first name; no one was called after a food, a town, an object or pastime. The closest we came to weird was the Armenian kid who spent elementary school sounding out his name for teachers who finally got the hang of it by June, only to forget it over summer holidays, forcing him to start again come September.

Despite our white bread heritage and nomenclature, we made names odd and exciting by drawing out syllables for comedic effect (regrettably, I received a long “duhhhh” suffix to my name), extracting swears from ordinary names (Peter, Virginia, Dickson), and working names into dirty rhymes (Mrs. Tucker, Mrs. Tucker, she’s a big…). Give us a name and we’d find a filthy thing to say about it. Really, parents should run baby names past a panel of twelve-year-olds, and if anyone snickers, it’s crossed off the list.


My girlfriends and I stood in a clutch, checking our schedules for homeroom assignment and common spares, and groaning over French class with drippy Monsieur Rondeau or phys ed with a butchy task-master. “La, la! You got Tonnelier,” we mocked. “Terri’s gonna kick your ass at field hockey then spy on you in the shower!”

I scanned my week for math, hoping it was slated in an easy-to-skip period. There: Wednesday, 12:50, room 402, piece of cake! Teacher: “H. Dick”.

No way…did the guy not know what sort of jokes we’d be making? The initial could stand for anything, but come on! Kids would guess “Harry” and that would be that. Turns out the guy was indeed Harold Dick, known as Harry. It was boldly written on the chalkboard when we walked in and took our seats. Not just on the first day of class…every day…all year. Like a dare–crack a smile and you’d be up there solving problems in front of your peers until next June.

I can only imagine that after a lifetime of being named Harry Dick, this man was making his problem our problem, too.

One Comment leave one →
  1. looka permalink
    June 3, 2009 1:25 pm

    All I call: "!"

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