Saw my five year old grandniece at a family dinner recently.
Me: "Hello, Lily! "
Lily: "Hi, Robin! "
Me: Blank stare. "Lily, my name is Aunt Robin."
Lily: Blank stare.
Me: "Lily, I'm too old for you to call me by my first name. When we talk, I need you to call me Aunt Robin."
Lily: Blank stare. Glance back at parents.
Me: Glare at parents.
Parents: Shift uncomfortably.
Me: "Hello, Lily. "
Lily: "Hello, R--, I mean --AUNT Robin!"
There's a lyric in the Earth, Wind and Fire song, After the Love is Gone, that says, "Something happened along the way, and yesterday was all we had." For some reason, that lyric pops in my head every time I go through or witness one of these intergenerational name struggles. I long so desperately for Olivia Pope to stride in, put her purse on the table with just the right amount of force, peel off her gloves while giving negligent parents The Stare and say, "It's handled!" It only plays out in my head, but I'd donate a rib for it all to unfold, just once, in real life.
I'm old school. No, really. I'm 50Free! I am blessed to parent three beautiful millennials, and privileged to work with a hundred more daily. They're all bright, beautiful and I love them to life. They keep me current, attuned to cultural references and technological advances. I learn as much as I teach. I love our candid interactions. But there are still unwritten rules: if you are too young to vote, buy alcohol, pay for your own health insurance, and particularly if you still live at home with your parents, yes, please put a handle on my name! Ms., Miss, Momma, Aunt, Cousin (only my Southern relatives invoke this one) - find and use some appropriate precursor to my given name to indicate your recognition of my age and all that goes with it. It's handled! That handle carries a modicum of respect, a bit of deference, a little tip of the hat recognizing that I have gone before and not only survived, but thrived. In turn, I love and respect you for the invocation. And I won't glare, in spirit or in truth, at your parents.
Let me be be transparent: growing up was a shock to my system. I grew up in a nice little neighborhood. I was a good, hard-working girl. Robin knew everybody, and everybody knew Robin. I left home, went to college here and there, worked hither and thither, married, and birthed babies. Two decades later I returned to the same neighborhood and bought my first home, exactly eight doors from my childhood home. I left as Robin and returned as Mrs. Cary. I was grown, a parent, old to some. Talk about awkward! It was hard to absorb. Every time someone yelled, "Hi, Mrs. Cary!", I turned around looking for my mother-in-law.
I opted to be one of those modern, more permissive parents. I quickly instructed my children's friends to call me Ms. Robin, and that felt to me like the right balance between respect and familiarity. That decision represented a quantum shift; my mother and all the women I knew in her generation were addressed almost exclusively by their handle and last name by everyone other than family. The only children who used their first names did so in conjunction with a familial handle: Aunt or Cousin.
When we visited our Southern relatives, Sir and Ma'am, the pinnacle of respectful handles, served as complete name substitutes. My parents did not require us to use Sir and Ma'am. Those titles were linked to racial oppression and were largely shed when our parents joined the Great Migration north. But I embraced those handles during my college years in the Carolinas. When "Yes, Ma'am" rolled off a Yankee child's tongue with ease, it earned smiles, nods of approval and generous slices of pound cake. So make no mistake, I do it, too. Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr., Reverend, Pastor, Sir, Ma'am, Professor - I gladly use them all on anyone I suspect is a little older or in a position of authority. Folks earn the right to be addressed with respect.
I guess that's why I was so taken aback when I entered the fancy private schooI where my son earned a scholarship, and realized all the children, kindergarten to high school, called their teachers by their first names. Interestingly, they used handles for the Headmaster, administrators, security and the cafeteria ladies, but not for their teachers. It was a deliberate plan to encourage friendship between students and teachers. Some seasoned teachers were able to handle this dichotomy, but it was a challenge for some young, new teachers. My son had one of those fresh-out-of-college teachers, and it did not work for her at all. Besides, I was not having it. Was there a need for teachers and students to be friends? Really? I'd witnessed a fellow graduate student get put in her place when she addressed a professor by his first name. He told her when she earned the degrees he had she would earn the right to use his first name then, and not one second before. She was trying to be a grown smartass, and I applauded his clapback. So this tomfoolery flew in the face of our family values. I called a parent-teacher meeting and told her no, Melissa, we will not be following that tradition. And by the way, do you see those children swinging from the rafters in your classroom? They think they are your friends, on your level. They do not see you as an authority in their lives and they have no respect for you. When Melissa was replaced mid-year, Ms. Gloria came in the door with discipline, authority and a handle. I think I heard Earth, Wind and Fire sing.
My children were raised to employ handles, and they do. They were even taught to use Sir and Ma'am in grave situations, like when there was smoke coming out of my ears as a result of something they'd said or done. It's easy. And it helps more than you might ever imagine. Particularly if you like your parents or pound cake.