Smile when you call me that
His name was Mark Merienne.* Perhaps it had a French origin. During the start of each semester, I always ask my students to correct my pronunciation if I mess up their names while taking roll. Fortunately, Mark seemed satisfied when I pronounced his name as mare-ee-EN. Soon, however, I had learned my students' names well enough that I stopped taking roll. I now called out their names only when I wanted to ask them questions or return their quizzes or exams.
I mostly stopped using their last names, too, except in the few instances where students shared a first name. Even then I sometimes preferred to call them things like “Ryan-sub-1” and “Ryan-sub-2.” If you can't get away with that in a math class, then where could you?
Mark Merienne was a scrawny boy with a shaggy haircut and a quiet demeanor. He seldom volunteered any answers in class, although he did all right when I called on him. He seemed skittish and uncomfortable most of the time, but lots of students tend to be unhappy in math class. I didn't worry about it too much. He seemed to be in stride with his classmates, somewhere in the middle of the pack.
Then the incident occurred.
I was returning a stack of quizzes. I started calling out names and handing out the papers as students took turns coming forward. I had an old quiz that a student hadn't picked up before because she had been skipping class, but today I saw that Mary Ann Jepperson was present. Therefore I called a name I hadn't called in a couple of class sessions.
Ms. Jepperson looked up uncertainly and hesitated in her seat. Then she saw that Mark had gotten up. He thought I had called him? I quickly pulled his quiz from the stack of papers. He approached my desk with a slight hunch to his shoulders and a sullen expression on his face. He took his quiz from me and sat back down, his lips pressed tightly together in a thin line of resentment.
I knew that Mark had thought I had called his last name, but then I realized the rest of the story, and the reason he was so dismayed with me.
Mark Merienne had probably gone through all the years of high school with the half-wit bullies delighting in calling him “Mary Ann.” Here he was in college now, and some jerk of a math teacher was apparently making the same old joke and mocking his last name. He had had a secondary school flashback. I was sure of it. Poor bastard.
I had to make it good without making too big a production of it, which would only have embarrassed him further. The opportunity soon arose. It was a couple of days later. I had another stack of graded papers to return. I started calling names. I was looking in Mark's direction when I got to Mary Ann's paper.
“Mary Ann!” Mark's head snapped toward me. He noticed I was looking at him and his eyes widened. “Jepperson,” I said. Mark's mouth fell open and I saw a spark of recognition in his eye. He got it.
A few seconds later: “Mark! Mare-ee-EN.”
Mark came forward, a slightly sheepish half-smile on his lips. He muttered “Thank you” when he took the paper from my hand, but I don't think he was talking about getting his quiz back.
*It wasn't, of course. The names in this post have been carefully changed to preserve the point of the story while protecting the anonymity of my students.