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Last and First Names

by Don Webb

In a curious double short story, Le Cheval et la mort (‘The Horse and Death’), Vercors has one of his characters explain that the difference between truth and fiction is that true stories have no ending. This is just such a story.

“The name I had the most trouble with was Krapp.”

I had to smile, and my old Italian professor gave his usual chuckle. “Sometimes the names of students are hard to pronounce,” he continued, “but how could I miss with that one?”

“So how did you handle it?” Ever the diligent graduate students, we were ready to take notes at the drop of any tidbit of information.

“I knew I couldn’t say the name without smiling, and that would have hurt the poor girl’s feelings. So I called on the student next to her and then, for the next question, I just said, ‘Next!’”

“Good idea,” I piped up. “I bet she came to be known as ‘Miss Next’.”

All through college I had always been addressed as “Mr. Webb,” even by my favorite professor, Frank G. Ryder. In retrospect I think it helped students’ morale and gave us a sense of seriousness. And it was very much in keeping with the culture of the 1950’s.

That was not to last. The times, they were indeed a-changing in the ’60s and ’70s. Students and faculty shed formality and sought a kind of solidarity against the authority that had brought us the war in Vietnam. And interactive methods of second-language teaching would come along in the ’80s and ’90s; I was searching for them even then.

Small changes can presage a larger tide. In the early ’60s, it was still a rule in the Department of French & Italian at the University of Wisconsin at Madison that all students be addressed as Mister or Miss. There were practically no “Mrs.” and “Ms.” was as yet unknown. Like all the other teaching assistants, I accepted the rule without a thought. That is, until one day...

The first day of class of the semester beginning in January 1964 was sunny and, of course, cold. I had bought a sport coat in France a year or two earlier, a fantaisie, the store clerk had called it. I learned later that it was a polite way of saying “bad taste,” but I didn’t mind; the coat was warm, very durable, and had lots of pockets. And it was the only one I had.

That day, the class cards were late. They were the cardboard punch cards used by computers of that era, and each card had a student’s name printed on it. I always liked to look through the cards before meeting a class for the first time, to see if there were a “Miss Next” or names I couldn’t pronounce.

But that day was an exception. I picked up the cards at the last minute, stuffed them into a pocket of my unique sport coat and ran. I would just have to wing it and read them cold.

Everything went as usual. Greet the class, introduce myself, hand out the course syllabus neatly typed on a typewriter and printed in stencil. And, finally, call the roll.

* * *

I slip the rubber band from the packet of cards onto my wrist and take the cards from the top. Read a name, look for the student, then slide the card onto the bottom of the deck, as it were.

“Mr. Johnson.” A student’s hand goes up. Smiles of recognition at a common but now famous name.

“Mr. Kennedy.” The smiles fade.

“Mr. Oswald...”

* * *

That is not the end, of course, but how can there be any? Perhaps only those old enough today can imagine the stunned silence that froze that classroom, only a few weeks after November 22, 1963. What could anyone say? What did I say? I don’t remember. But the effects were immediate: I staged my own quiet revolution.

In all the years thereafter I’ve seen the name Johnson several times on class lists, which are now printed out or displayed on my computer screen. And Kennedy, less often, but never on the same list. And never again the name Oswald. Was it fate showing a sinister smile? Possibly.

But those three names one after the other, with no L’s, M’s or N’s? Did someone in the University of Wisconsin computer center sit up all night, plotting to stack my hand with a royal flush in spades? I think so. He never knew how his practical joke played out, but it had effects beyond his wildest dreams. From that moment on — rules be damned — I have always called students by their first names.

Copyright © 2002 by Don Webb, in issue 9.
Reissued for issue 551 on Nov. 22, 2013

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