L’il Miss Attitude

Every year, I study my new class rosters and practice saying the names aloud so I don’t sound like a total dork on the first day.

One year, I was feeling pretty good until I came to one particular name.

T-a.

I didn’t know what to do with it.

I mean, I wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. I tried a lot of different combinations.

Tee-ah? Tee-ay? Tah? Tay?

I had no idea. I figured the best thing to do would be to just admit defeat and ask the student to pronounce his or her name in class.

The first day of class came.

New students filed in and gravitated to the seats they liked the best. Some near the front, others farther back.

I introduced myself and began taking attendance, reading down the list, changing “James” to “Jim” and “Richard” to “Rick.” I even had the foresight to ask the student whose last name was Montague what he liked to be called. A good-looking chap in a baseball cap smiled at me and said, “Adam.” His name had appeared as “Bartholomew” on the roster. I didn’t want to embarrass him because his parents had made a bad choice 19 years earlier. Turns out, he went by his middle name.

Finally, I hit the dreaded name.

“Okay,” I said, “I am not sure how to properly pronounce this name, so I’m wondering if there is a person with the last name of Dinkens here today.”

The room was silent.

“Nobody here with the last name of Dinkens?” I repeated.

Someone clucked her tongue. “That’s me,” said a girl with her chin tilted up at a hard angle.

“I wasn’t sure how to pronounce your name, so I thought you could help me out,” I said.

“Why don’tchu try it?” L’il Miss Attitude asked, crossing her arms across her black and white striped tee shirt.

“Okay,” I said, “Is it Tee-ah?”

The girl made a sound like she had been annoyed with me since the moment I was born.

“Lord,” she said, “Don’t you know the dash ain’t silent? It’s TaDASHa.”

Silence swirled around me noisily. It was the first day of class. I had to set the tone, properly. I wasn’t mad at this girl, but I could not allow her to disrespect me, not right out of the gate. Seventeen billion thoughts on how to handle the situation occurred to me simultaneously ranging in severity.

While I was leaning toward a good old-fashioned paddling, I chose a stern voice.

“Are you a first year student here, Tadasha?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Tadasha said, chewing on her thumbnail.

“And is this your very first class on campus today?”

“Yeah.”

“And do you have a full-time schedule?”

“Yeah.”

“And how many other classes do you have today?”

“Three,” Tadasha snipped.

“And you are telling me no one has ever mispronounced or struggled with the pronunciation of your name in your entire life?”

“Bitch, where I live people know me.”

I thought my head was going to blow off my shoulders. Did I hear wrong or did a student in my classroom just call me a bitch? I felt like I was on some kind of bad reality TV show, you know the type where someone eventually jumps out as things escalate and tells the unsuspecting victim that he’s been punked? Except the clock kept ticking and no one seemed to be coming to my rescue, and I didn’t see any cameras. I had to do something.

Everyone was staring at me.

“Okay Tadasha,” I started, while moving to sit on top of my large iron desk. “Here are a few things for you to consider as you move through the rest of your day. First, I predict that this exact interaction is going to happen to you three more times today. And when you address the person who mispronounces your name — because it will be mispronounced — it would be wise for you to not address that person with profanity.” I looked my student in the eye: “Calling someone a ‘bitch’ is rarely the appropriate way to address another person whether in a classroom on a college campus or in life.”

Tadasha was silent.

Everyone turned to look at her.

Suddenly I realized I was playing a weird verbal tennis match, and I had obviously smacked the ball over to her side of the net.

Everyone was waiting to see if she was going to make a mad dash to return it.

She didn’t, so I kept going.

Full. Court. Press.

“Also, just so you know, you have an unusual name. The hyphen — or dash — as you called it, is generally silent. We don’t usually pronounce it. People may know you in the part of the world where you have lived for the last 18 or so years, but no one knows you on this campus, so if you want to have positive interactions today I recommend that you be kind. Try to have a sense of humor. No one wants to hurt you. On the first day, your teachers are just trying to figure out who is who. That’s all I was trying to do.”

Tadasha was glaring at me.

“Last, we have not started off well today, so I would suggest that you head down to the Registrar right now and get yourself enrolled in another section of Comp-101.”

Tadasha gathered her purse and her books and walked out of the class with her head held high.

She never came back, and I never saw her again.

I often wonder if Tadasha made it through the day. The week. The semester. If she graduated at all. I wonder about her hard edges. About how she had made it so far yet knew so little about how to interact with other people. Was she just scared? Did I blow it? Did I do her a favor? Or did I ruin her?

Who do you wonder about from your past? What do you imagine that person is doing now?

*names have been changed for obvious reasons

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60 responses to “L’il Miss Attitude

  1. Well done. You rocked that situation, and hopefully taught her some very valuable life lessons in the process.

  2. Nicely handled, Renee. It is unfortunate when someone sets a hard edge with a teacher (one of the people most likely to be able to help them). Let’s hope the brief passage of you through her life had a positive impact.

  3. Wow. You are a rock star, Ms. SchulsdashJacobson. I’m a little surprised you asked her to leave your class, as maybe your words would have sunk in and her attitude adjusted (or would have dropped the class on her own.) But given the disrespect she showed, I don’t blame you.

    Plus, you know the other students in the class wanted to tell her to shut the heck up anyway. You maintained your composure and the respect of her peers. I dig it.

  4. Wow. I think you were amazing. I definitely would not have been that quick on my feet without using profanity back.

    • When I am mad, I get really rational and really quiet.

      This is with my students, of course.

      At home there is screaming and door slamming involved.

      Swearing at your students is never a good idea. Unless quoting from the literature, of course.

  5. Whhhhaaaaattttt! I can’t imagine what I would have done. Probably gone all ghetto fabulous on her.

    And then gotten fired. I repeat, I could never be a teacher.

  6. I think you handled it well. I have one of those hard to pronounce surnames. It’s actually English in origin, but it’s got a lot of letters and people just freeze like deer in headlights when they see them. Your approach is much more respectful than “[Garbled name] teeheehee.” And the teeheehee approach is what I get most of the time.

    I said all that to say a certain amount of irritation goes with having one of those hard to pronounce names. After a while, you’re so sick of politely correcting people that you seriously think of having your name changed to Jane Smith. So TaDASHa was probably acting upon a lifetime of telling people the dash wasn’t silent. That doesn’t excuse her behavior, which you also handled very gracefully.

    It took a lot of backbone to tell her to go sign up for another comp 101 class. A lot of instructors wouldn’t have been able to do it. Kudos to you for standing up for yourself. She’d have either bullied you all semester or y’all would have struggled through some weird game of one upmanship that would have threatened your sanity.

    What happened to TaDASHa? She didn’t make it through the week. If she did, she probably didn’t make it through the second semester. She’s probably working a minimum wage job and going to college at night with a whole different attitude. She’ll probably end up being a high dollar attorney. You gotta learn the hard way most of the time. :D

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    • Catie-Lady: I actually like the scenario where T-a makes it as an attorney. It’s kind of like Pretty Woman Goes to College. I really hope she pulled herself together.

      There are a bunch of people I knew from high school who had a lot of attitude. I often wonder where they landed.

  7. My oh my! Well played, my friend. EVERY student in your class, not just T-a, learned a valuable lesson about respect that day. One lecture about respect (it is your classroom) could not possibly have ruined her. Your students need to feel a mutual sense of respect, from you and their fellow classmates; apparently T-a didn’t feel she needed to participate regarding that value.

    It was her choice – she could have apologized and asked to stay in your classroom, or gone to another knowing a better attitude was expected.

    When blatant disrespect is accepted, the downfall of society begins.

    You acted with integrity!

    • “When blatant disrespect is accepted, the downfall of society begins.”

      I love you so much right now, Carol. I see so much rudeness everyday. Not just at school, but from adults who know better just out in the world. Folks blabbing loudly on their cellphones in restaurants; teens texting at the dinner table. But no one corrects anyone. It is a bit disheartening. I wonder what will become of us. Of course, I think our grandparents worried the same things about their children. So…

  8. Well played. I’d say: Game. Set. Match.

    Looking back there is one person I have lost touch with that really bugs me. Not for my (and mutual friends) lack of trying to find him, rather him not wanting to be found. We lost touch about 10 years ago. Many of our friends have tried to get in touch with him (we’ve even talked to his parents) with no luck. We usually meet a few times a year to reminisce, but without his presence we aren’t a complete gang. We’re missing a piece of our pie.

    • I have the same thing: one old friend. I miss her. I know where she’s landed, but we’ve grown apart so I don’t know any real details. It still bums me out a bit. But as long as she’s okay.

      And I suppose if someone doesn’t want to be found, we have to respect that.

  9. For some of the names I have encountered it seems parents dump a bunch of letter tiles out of a scrabble bag and however they come out becomes the name. It is a rejection of anything considered white. Caribbeans spell John as Jhon. Many try to imitate African names but fail miserably at that. They would be surprised at how many African men have names like Arnold, William, Harold, Bentley, Clifford, James, Radcliff, Perry, etc. Many African women have Old and New Testament names as well. It was effective to say the word “bitch” as it shows you were not intimidated. In playful moods well into the term I often intentionally mispronounced everyone’s name or called the wrong name and it was great fun.

    • Hi Carl: I love when I start to know my students well enough to dole out playful nicknames.

      But I have to disagree with you on one point: African men and women did not originally have Old Testament names. Those names were given to them once they were made to come over to the U.S. in slave ships. Those Old Testament names were generally given by slave owners who didn’t care to pronounce their African names — that is why people have tended to renounce them. I can understand that. I had no problem with T-a’s name, just the way she handled telling me her name.

  10. It sounds like you handled that perfectly. A little stern, but not going over the edge and turning it into a cat-fight. Sadly, that poor kid probably had parents that were total f-ups and never taught her any life lessons (if there were parents involved at all). Hopefully she eventually found some stability and the chance to grow up. She may not remember you personally, but I’ll sure bet she remembers that encounter. Well done!

  11. This is why I didn’t follow a teacher’s advice to become one myself. I wouldn’t have been able to stay calm and would probably have got myself fired. Good on you for being able to handle the situation.

  12. Good on you girl!!! Wow! She got told!!!
    I love that you booted her and then asked that she enroll in another class.
    Woo! You are not going to have any problems controlling your class this year!

    • Susie:

      I didn’t so much as “boot her” as “suggest” that we had gotten off on the wrong foot. Seriously, that interaction would have colored the way I viewed her for the rest of the year. Pretending it didn’t happen would have created a toxic environment for everyone.

      But if you like the image of me with Das Boot, okay. ;-)

  13. I struggle with this question, too, when I’ve had to respond to a situation in a less-than-friendly fashion. Sometimes, that kind of response is warranted and necessary to push someone in the right direction; based on that, I’ve decided (tho’ it’s easier than decided and done!) to be less hard on myself when I have been forced to step outside of my comfort zone in response.

    It reminds me of something a self-defense instructor said about a decade ago. “If someone is attacking you, go for their eyes.” In response to tons of groans and shudders, she said, “I mean it. You would not normally walk up to someone and claw at their eyes. You are only doing it for defensive self-preservation.”

    I’ve thought about that a lot since. Now, if someone were to attack me? I’d go for their eyes, no hesitation. Fortunately, very, very few interactions warrant this kind of response!

    I think you did awesome in a surprising, tough exchange. I, too, wish you’d run into Tadasha and see where she’s gone.

    The person I wonder about is a friend from my high school days. I lived with her when I first moved out of my mom’s house at fifteen. She was 90% supportive, both as a roommate and as a not-roommate, but 10% acerbic and biting. My mom got so much of the latter from her friends, there came a point where I said, “I love you, but I’m not willing to be your smack-down guy when you’re feeling bad.”

    I sometimes wonder where she’s gone. I actually wrote her an email a couple years back, but didn’t get a reply. I’ve had to terminate a few “friendships” (if I may use the language of my profession!), but this is the only termination I sometimes second guess.

    • Deb: As usual, thank you for the thoughtful response. I don’t like to think that I was “going for the eyes,” but T-a did back me into a corner, so I had to come back strong.

      As for my one dropped friendship, yeah… she got all competitive with me. I guess it was always there, but once I noticed it, it just didn’t feel good anymore. Still, I remember the good times and often wonder if I should try to rekindle things. But then I remember the other times and I put down the phone.

  14. As I was reading, I had no idea how I would handle it or how YOU would’ve. That was amazing and took immense skill, patience and lots of self-control on your part. I think you did the girl a favour. It may not have affected her right that day but it was a lesson she probably kept with her. You are good!

  15. Excellent story. My goodness you handle yourself under pressure. And that was pressure. I know because I was a college professor.

    I had a student in my Intro to Sociology class who had to be there because it was required of his curriculum (much like your students, I imagine). He was determined not to learn a thing. He showed up because I took attendance, but he never took notes. He just put his feet up on the chair in front of him, crossed his arms and glared at me for the entire class. He managed to barely pass his exams, so I know he had a friend who was taking notes.

    The day came for me to discuss non-verbal communication and I used his mannerisms, not him, to illustrate how non-verbals could be used to assert power or communicate displeasure. His demeanor changed when he knew I knew what he was doing.

    He was studing “Criminal Justice.” God help us all…

  16. You did the right thing, Renee. One student with attitude does not have the right to hijack the class. The Motor Vehicle System does not recognize special characters in names. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when she tried to get a drivers license. I’m certain the clerk was called the B word and a few others.

    I always wonder about kids from my youth crisis days. I’m in touch with quite a few but there are others that I know might have made it but probably didn’t. Sometimes, what you don’t know is a blessing.

    • SusceptorQueen:

      I have a hyphenated last name and the MV Dept. has it right on my license. I’m guessing she is T-a.

      Lawd, but I could totally see her working at the Motor Vehicles Department! ;-)

      And you are right: Sometimes what you don’t know is a blessing. Wise words.

      • Oops! I lacked specificity. Yes, the system will recognize hyphenated surnames. It will not allow hyphens in first names. For instance, we often ran into people with two first names such as Maria Elena. We had no choice but to run the names together since the system would not allow two first names or hyphens. The last time I dealt with that system was 2009. I don’t believe they had any intention of changing anything. Also, she would have had to prove that a governmental agency allowed that name on a birth certificate (I’ve never seen a social security card with something like T-a on it either, and people have been doing strange things since the beginning of time.) I reviewed thousands of legal documents including birth certificates and social security cards and never saw something like that authorized. I would LOVE to have a look at her birth certificate. (T puts on her MVD spectacles and peers sternly over the top of them.) ;}

  17. All I can say is, Wow.
    Wow for her parents giving her a dash as part of her name, wow for her attitude and wow for the amazing way you handled it.
    And that’s why it’s you, not me. :)

  18. I was just shocked that you didn’t correct her grammar: “Lord,” she said, “Don’t you know the dash ain’t silent? It’s TaDASHa.”

  19. I am speechless. Dumbfounded. Awed. And bowing – bowing before your grace and your aplomb and Holy Mother of God, HOW did you keep your cool?

    Love, love, love that you sent her off to find another course teacher. THAT was particularly awesome.

    • You are too kind, Liz. Seriously. Did you not see the post where I threw the pen at a one-eyed boy and nearly blinded him? Not good. Then again, that was much earlier in my career. You know, when I knew even less than I do now.

      But thank you. Sometimes I get it right.

      Kind of. ;-)

  20. Amazing. I don’t know which would be worse, being T-a or a boy named Sue. In either case, you gotta wonder, what the heck were those parents thinking? The way she handled it was totally wrong, but you have to expect she was tired of answering that question all the time.

    I think you handled the situation quite well…. When I was teaching (taught HS math in inner-city LA in mid-80s), I wasn’t as good at handling it. When I got mad, I’d initially hold it until it hit boiling point, then BOOM! Not good. Only really lost it once in the class room, told myself afterwards – “if I ever do that again, I shouldn’t be teaching.” 25 years later, I think I’d handle it better now….

    • Thank you for your kind words. And this is why I prefer teaching at the college level. There is absolutely an understanding that being there is a choice.

      You don’t have that luxury in public schools K-12. And while I did my service there as well, I love where I am now.

      Plus, no parents. ;-)

  21. I love this story. It’s the “bitch” that made it way over the line and justified the reaction. And you’re teaching writing: which is about communicating to an audience.

    I teach at a private school that is quite culturally diverse. I’m thankful I taught overseas. Still, it doesn’t always serve me well. I can say the breathy/gutteral “h” in Arabic. So a few years ago, when I was reading the names aloud, I said Ahmed as you would in Arabic. The student looked at me and said, “Actually, it’s Aww-med.” I had forgotten we were in Canada.

    • Oh, it was DEFINITELY the “bitch” that put me over. Up until then, we were fine. Nobody puts baby in the corner. And nobody calls this teacher a bitch. At least, not to her face. In front of students. (Behind my back, they can say whatever they like.)

      Like how hot I am. ;-)

      You Arabic “Ahmed” story has to be a serious crowd-pleaser at parties. I know that sound.

  22. Wow! I wish I could be as calm and rational as you are when someone disrespects you. I get all flummoxed and everything comes out wrong. Seriously, how do you do it?

    I sort of feel sorry for T-A. Can’t be easy going through life with a name everyone mispronounces. Still, your reaction was spot on.

    • I think that’s why I have always wondered about her. She was definitely a school of hard-knocks girl from the other side of the tracks. (Wow, that’s a lot of clichés layered atop each other!) But I always felt like if we hadn’t started out that way, maybe we could have had a good experience.

      I kind of hope she’s changed her name to Tadasha.

  23. And…what if someone gets the punctuation in her name wrong and replaces the minus sign with a plus sign? Does she become T+A?

  24. You handled that really well! Wow. What a story.

  25. I think it was great that you were able to actually get through those pieces of advice that you gave her before booting…er, suggesting that she leave. I am pretty sure I would have just walked to the door, opened it, and said “This is a good time to tell you that I have a zero-tolerance policy for such blatant lack of respect. Clearly you do not belong here. Go register for a different class, and if you would like to remain in that class, I suggest you NOT call your next teacher a bitch. Have a nice day.”

    I’ve never had anyone call me a ‘bitch’ but I have had situations in the middle of the semester of students getting belligerent. Usually, I handle that with a very curt, “Outside. NOW.” and I talk to the student privately in the hallway. I have no problem telling a student that they don’t belong in my class if they can’t behave properly. One of my favorite things to tell my students is “You are adults now. You don’t have to come to class or do your homework. But you do have to then deal with the consequences. In the grand scheme of things, failing a class might not be a big deal to you, so if you are willing to deal with it and don’t want to be here, by all means, stop wasting everyone’s time and go do something else.”

    A student like that can derail the entire semester.

    • Leonore:

      That’s pretty much the speech I would give these days. Luckily, I haven’t had too many classroom management issues. Unless you count the time that kid grabbed me when he got an F.

      Yeah, that sucked.

      Luckily, my students pulled him off of me.

  26. Oh wow! You posed a great question at the end, but instead I’m going to tell you about the two most memorable names my mom has seen at the doctor’s office where she works. One was like yours, La-a. (Ladasha, of course.)

    The other was spelled Vii.

    Any guesses? Vie? Vee? Vee-eye? …Nope. “Seven.”

    • No. Way.

      That is awesome!

      I can’t wait to tell the story of Vii at cocktail parties! I cannot imagine it. I suppose it’s true that folks at doctor’s offices see everything. That hadn’t occurred to me. I think they are my new heroes, seeing as they have to pronounce whacked out names every day. I only have to suffer through it a few times a year.

  27. Wow. Huh. Hmm….

    I deliberately don’t read the roster so I can have fun with it on day 1. It’s like a stand-up routine. Never encountered anyone so hostile like that though. I’ve had jerks come at me at various points but nothing like that one. I wouldn’t react so calmly. I don’t think. I wouldn’t yell, but I would definitely find a way to humiliate them with words. Not that I would be right, just that I know myself. So credit to you for a measured response.

  28. Oh my, I think I wouldn’t have been as nice as you if one of my students answered me that way. I have to give it to you for handling it so well. You did it with much grace and poise. Thanks for sharing this. Now, I’ve one good tip on how to handle students like that in the future. But I pray I’d have your patience and wisdom to do that. A thousand and one words would have rushed through my mind to put her in her place. (sigh) Love this post!

  29. Wow! If she had caught me on a hormonal day, it would not have been good. I probably would have cried…

  30. My mom works admissions at a college and she saw the name taDASHa (Ta-a) come up. Either it’s a more popular name than one would expect or taDASHa moved out of state.

    Wouldn’t T-a be pronounced TeeDASHa anyhow? Talk about a messed up name.

    Great job handling her sass. You did her a huge favor.

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