“Call me Ishmael..." Henry Melville, Moby Dick
To borrow Melville's famous opening lines: “Call me M-Dubs.” Adapting his opening lines a bit further, I would say: “Some years ago - never mind how long precisely, (actually, it was in the spring of 2010) having little or no money in my bank account, and nothing of particular to interest me on the shores of Lake Waubesa in the Madison area, I thought I would set sail in the waters of public education, and become a Substitute Teacher.”
Okay, maybe my venture back into a high school was not as glamourous as Melville made it sound for his narrator and protagonist, Ishmael, when he went set sail with Captain Ahab aboard the ship, Pequod, but it certainly has been an adventure.
William Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet, said: "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." I was born, Scott Thomas Wheeler. While my mom and a couple of college roommates called me "Scotty,” most people simply called me - Scott. When my wife, Staci, and I married, we choose to hyphenate our last names. We became the Marrese-Wheeler's. As an ordained Presbyterian minister, people would call me “Reverend Marrese-Wheeler” or “Pastor Scott.” The youth in the congregation I served in Monroe, Wisconsin started calling me “P Scott.” I assumed this was a shortened version of "Pastor Scott". They might say it had something to do with the frequency of the bathroom breaks we took on our trips to youth conferences. However, on the first day of my work as a substitute teacher at McFarland High School, I received a new name, and one that I have been called ever since. I was asked to sub for a teacher who like me, had a hyphenated last name. Since I was not familiar to the students, I wrote my name - "Mr. Marrese-Wheeler" - on the board. One student noted that like their teacher, I had a hyphenated name. He then added that with the teacher’s permission, they called her "Ms. D-W" or more informally, "D-Dubs." Continuing, he asked if the class might refer to me as “Mr. M-W” or "M-Dubs"? That seemed a reasonable request, and a way to connect with the students, so I said, yes. The name has stuck.
Names are important to all of us, be they our given name or an affectionate “nickname” we inherited. Some of us are named after a beloved family member or friend. Some of us have been named after a famous person. Others of us have names that our parents loved for their own reasons. Most of us would say we are comfortable living with our name or nickname, while a few might not and have made the decision to change their name. What is your name? What is the story behind it?
Whether serving as the pastor of a church or working as an educator in the McFarland Schools, I have found it important to know as many people’s names as possible. Because my work at the school was in study hall and the lunchroom, I have had daily contact with most of the students. I worked hard to get to know as many of their first names as possible, and last names if I was able. It was easier to get to know some students names, especially when they were constantly calling attention to themselves with their behavior (good and bad). The real trick was to get to know the name of the student who hid in a book, blended in at a table with their friends, or sat off to the side by their self. Students, like all of us, appreciate it when you know their name. I believe when you get to know a student’s name, you are reminded that they, like us, are a human being, a child of God, in whom dwells the divine spark that reflects the image of the Creator. In getting to know their individual name, you are also reminded that they not just a statistic in a data report generated for the purpose judging a teacher or a school’s ability to educate.
There are many names of students I would like to tell you about in this blog post, however, there is one in particular I feel I need to do so, though she is not a student at McFarland High School. Her name is Anna. (Not her real name). She is a registered nurse, an educator and a professional church musician. She was a high school classmate of mine. I remember her being smart, funny, and attractive. I also remember a name several of my friends and I like to call her, and it was not her first name nor was it an affectionate “nickname.” It was a cruel name, one we used to make fun of her. Each day during lunch, my friends and I would sit on the steps near the water fountain (Bubbler, for all you Wisconsinites). Each day, Anna would walk by, we would tease her, calling her by our “special” name. She hated it and reacted to it, yelling at us to stop. We didn’t stop. We pushed things even further and had tee-shirts made that said: “We Hate (Cruel Name Here)!” We thought we were being so clever and “cool” wearing those shirts. Little did I know the negative impact our name calling was having on her.
I am not sure who is the source of the words: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” Whoever came up with that expression is wrong. If you work in a school, you are aware of the pain caused by a text message or post on Facebook or a tweet on Twitter by teenagers. As a pastor, I have preached sermons on the topic of labeling other people. I have spent time with the youth in the churches I have served, talking with them about how the words we use can edifiy or demonlish another person. I have helped co-advise the Gay-Straight Alliance, http://www.gsanetwork.org, a group whose purpose is to create a safe space in school for students to support each other, learn about homophobia, transphobia, and other oppressions, and fight discrimination, harassment, and violence in schools. I felt I was being a good educator and pastor. It seems I had one more lesson, and this one a painful one, to learn.
A few years ago, when I signed up for Facebook, I started sending “Friend” requests to my high school classmates. I sent one to Anna. She responded, wondering why I would want to be her “friend” after all the pain I had caused her in high school. She told me about the lingering effects my “name-calling” had on her life. How she had considered leaving our school because our cruelty. At the end of her very pointed note, she asked me to consider how I would feel if I had a daughter who was treated the way my friends and I had treated her?
It would be too easy to beg her forgiveness saying, I was just a teenager who did not know how much power there is in a name, especially in a name used to tease a young high school girl. Maybe I thought of my actions as just harmless teasing, but they were not. They had caused Anna great pain. So let me say publicly, what I have said to her privately. Anna, I am sorry. I know my words of apology can never be enough to make up for all the emotional even spiritual pain my part in the name-calling caused you. No, I would not want anyone to treat my child or any child, the way I treated you. I promised you I would tell this story, sharing it in a way that might help others realize the pain we can inflict on others by our words, especially the names we use to tease, taunt, trash-talk, put down, ridicule, or bully others. These names can do great harm to another’s self-worth. They can also help to destory the sense of the sacred in the person who we are ridiculing. Our abuse of another’s name has one more consquence, it can demolish the Holy in us, making it difficult for others to see God in us, and even more so, for us to see the Divine Light within ourselves.
In Arthur Miller’s classic, The Crucible, a play about the Salem Witch Trials, the character, John Proctor, is wrestling with his conscience about signing his name to a confession that he is a “witch.” If he does, his soul will be saved, but his good name and reputation will be destroyed. He begs the church officials, crying out, “...How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!"
Her name is Anna. My name is Scott or if you perfer, M-Dubs. Your name is ________. Our names are important to us. We are known by those names. By whatever name we are known by to our family, friends, classmates, or co-workers, there is one name we all are called, and that name is - Child of God.
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine." (Isaiah 43:1 NRSV)