This year will mark my 20th year in the State of Georgia. I moved here in 1996 to teach at a small private school about an hour outside of Atlanta and the first thing that struck me was how different things were. See, I’m one of them Yankees, born in Ohio and raised in Massachusetts so in terms of history, I won the war. Now, the fact that I moved to the South was quite hilarious to my family since I swore up, down, and sideways that I would never move south of the Mason Dixon Line but here I was, driving from what was then Hartsfield Airport, having a “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” moment when I saw two fiberglass cows on a billboard writing “Eat Mor Chikin” in very messy cowsive.

The fact that I wasn’t from these parts became apparent when I made my first trip to the grocery store and I opened the door for myself. “You must be one of them damn Yankees because no self-respecting Southern woman would open the door for herself.” Where I come from, if you wait for some man to open the door for you one of two things is going to happen: 1) You’ll be waiting outside a long time or 2) You’ll get pushed out of the way so the person behind you can go in. I have since been admonished by many a male student for not allowing him to open and hold the door for me. “You’re not letting me be a gentleman.” Who knew chivalry wasn’t dead? Not me. I just wanted to get in the door.

The other difference I already knew about was the use of “ma’am” and “sir” as a sign of respect when speaking to anyone older than you. While I was not raised to do that (referring to an adult by “Mr. “ or “Mrs./Ms./Miss” followed by their last name sufficed) my daughter is a Southern Belle, born and raised in Georgia so saying “ma’am” and “sir” was second nature to her, as it was for most of my students. (She was also taught to wait for a man to open a door for her so you can imagine my father’s surprise one day when my daughter was about 6 to be in the house for five minutes and notice that she wasn’t there. Why? Because she was still in the car waiting for him to open the door. Poor child would’ve frozen to death in the New England winter had my father not gone back to let her out. Bless her heart. But I digress…)

In my classroom and in the high school where I teach, as it is in most places, students referred to me by “Ms” followed by my last name and when I asked them a mundane question like “did you do your homework” the response was always “Yes ma’am Ms. Sims” or “No ma’am Ms. Sims.” Nothing out of the ordinary. When I got married and my last name changed to Holliman, an interesting thing happened. My kids stopped calling me Mrs. Holliman and started calling me by a series of nicknames. Holliminion, Hollipop, Holliwood, Holliween (but only in October) Mama Holliman, Hollilujah (but only in December or possibly around Easter). All of a sudden the Southern formality I had grown accustomed to, disappeared. I had older, more seasoned teachers, tell me that the students were being “too familiar” with me by not using Mrs. Holliman. “They’re losing all respect for you and once that happens, you’ll never get them back.” I wasn’t raised in the South but I had been here long enough to know the proper response, “Yes ma’am.”

I really didn’t mind actually and I still don’t. It’s to the point now that some adults in the building call me “Hollipop” and one of my APs calls me “Holliworld” when we’re just talking in the hallway. To me, it showed that I developed a relationship with my kids that made them feel comfortable calling me by a nickname, and most nicknames are terms of endearment. And no, they didn’t lose respect for me, and no my classroom didn’t turn into Eastside High, and yes they had great test scores, and learned, and grew, and yes they were still slightly frightened of the 4 foot 11 inch woman in the front of the classroom who demanded their best work all the time whether they wanted to or not. Nope. None of that changed. But then, there was one year, and one student who pushed the boundaries of what should occur in a classroom where respect was expected and his name was Dorian.

From just looking at him, Dorian was your typical rowdy, social 9th-grade boy. He was smart, but lazy and that was the first thing he told the class when we did introductions. It was also the first thing he made clear in his work and I spent the better part of his first semester pushing, prodding, encouraging, fussing, and nearly cursing for him to give me more than he was giving me. Sometimes it worked, most times it didn’t. Dorian was going to be a “C” student and that was that.

The other thing about Dorian was that he took great joy in trying to get under my skin. Not in a malicious “I don’t like you” way because to hear him tell it I was the best teacher in the building and his favorite, but in that annoying younger sibling way. He’d tap his pencil (when he had one) over and over again because he knew it irritated me or he’d start a full fledge conversation with the kid next to him while I was teaching because he knew how much I appreciated THAT. But one day, Dorian did something that was bold even for him. He called me by my first name.

I still remember when it happened because I was standing at the board writing down notes with my back to Dorian when I heard him say “Chantrise. I can’t see what you’re writing.” I stopped in mid-letter. The class took a collective inhale and as I turned slowly around all I could see was the wide-eyed expressions of my students. When I finally got to Dorian, I said “Excuse me? You said what now?” He looked around me at what was on the board and said “Chantrise. That’s your name, right?” I just looked at him and smirked. The boy who normally didn’t do any work, wouldn’t take any notes, was diligently working AND taking notes at the same time…and had just taken his “get under my skin” game to a new level. “Indeed, that is my name but not to you. Mrs. Holliman works just fine thank you.” And because he refused to be outdone, his response? “Okay Chantrise.” My students, who were silent the entire time and watching very carefully to see when I was going to go off on him, were surprised when I ignored him and went on with the lesson.

When class was over, he ran out of class and said, “See you tomorrow Chantrise.” The kids just looked at me and as they exited and each of them made certain to say “Bye Mrs. Holliman” as if to say “we aren’t disrespectful or crazy and we want you to know.” I sat in my room and tried to get angry. It’s one thing to give me a nickname as a student but something completely different to call me by my first name. Boundaries had been crossed and they had to be corrected. I could see the older more seasoned teachers looking down at me over their glasses and shaking their heads with “we told you so” disapproval. I was going to address it the next day. But there was a problem. Just a minute ago, I wrote that I TRIED to get angry because angry was the appropriate response. But I wasn’t. It didn’t bother me at all.

The next day, Dorian asked “Hey Chantrise. Are we going to have any homework tonight?” Again, the class waited for my frustrated response. “Not tonight Dorian but you will have reading tomorrow.” Everyone looked at him to see what he was going to say next. “Okay good because I have a basketball game to play.” They all had this “why isn’t she correcting him or writing him up or something” look on their faces. The reason, which I never told them, was I had decided to choose my battles with Dorian and my biggest concern wasn’t what he called me. It was that he left my class having learned something so Dorian called me by my first name for the rest of the year. It irritated more people in the building than it irritated me, which it didn’t, and I had many more stern conversations from seasoned teachers who, to this day, I can’t call by their first names. But that ended up being the relationship I had with Dorian for the rest of his high school career. When he would use my name in other classes for the first time I would inevitably get an email from a teacher or get stopped in the hallway so he or she could tell me what Dorian had said. My response was always “Yeah. He’s been doing that since freshman year.” They would look at me and say “Doesn’t that bother you?” My response was to shrug my shoulders and say “You pick your battles.”

Over the four years we knew each other, Dorian became one of my favorite students and I, as he told everyone, was still his favorite teacher. During his last week of school, I finally asked him why he refused to call me Mrs. Holliman, or even by a nickname, like every other student in the building. His response floored me and, to this day, sits quite comfortably in my heart. “Because I knew two weeks in that not only were you going to be my favorite teacher but you were going to be like family and you don’t call family by their last names. You call them by their first.” I could feel the tears well up in my eyes. “Awww come on. Don’t do that. See? Now I have to leave!” But, he gave me a hug before he did.

I realized then that each time Dorian called me Chantrise he wasn’t being disrespectful. He was actually giving me the utmost respect by using my first name as a way to show that I was more than his teacher. I was family. If part of being an effective teacher means building strong relationships with your students, then the one I had with Dorian was built out of steel. Interestingly enough, I have built beautiful and lasting relationships with most of my students but he is the only one who has ever called me by my first name and I’m not sure I would have tolerated it from anyone else. I have students who are fully grown with spouses and children who won’t call me by my first name and I completely understand. But then you come across a student who embodies the W.C. Fields quote “It ain’t what they call you. It’s what you answer to” and everything changes. I have to admit, I’m glad I answered when Dorian called.

What You Answer To

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