Call me James

Admittedly, one reads The Mail at one’s own risk but it is more human than the other rags and politically more sane. On the other hand, it certainly works itself up into a lather over anything and the story needs to be checked against other sources before being used, say, in a blogpost.

This story though about children at Boughton-under-Blean and Dunkirk Primary school in Faversham, Kent being ordered to call their teachers by their first names, if true, is very much like incest in my eyes and I’d just hate to have some awful specimen telling me that she’s my best friend.

When I was lecturing/tutoring at university in Russia, there was a severe imbalance between the sexes – in my last year, I taught 115 girls and 7 boys from the 3rd to the 5th years, making them about 18 to 22 years of age. That was very much the cusp, over there, when they could be said to have grown up and the question of names was an interesting one.

For a start, they use imya-ochestva, the first name and the patrynomic, so you’ll have Yulia Sergeevna, for example, which provides her with both the familiarity and the respect at the same time. It’s not a bad system but in my case, it was difficult. Officially the university went with Mr Higham and senior staff went with James but what about the young women?

Towards me, I always opened a new academic year saying they could call me Mr. Higham or James as they saw fit but please not to call me Mr. James. The Turkish boys called me Teacher and the Minister I worked with [elsewhere] called me Professor and I called him Minister. When he stopped being minister, then I had a problem on my hands.

I called the girls by their first names unless I was annoyed, in which case I used Miss Petrova or similar. The lessons were conducted in English but when we dropped into Russian, the question of vi or ti arose. In my position – and a professor is far more exalted over there than here – it was a clear vi towards me and a clear ti towards her. When a girl dropped into ti, it depended if it was in the session, in which case it would have been conducted in English anyway. When I met her on the stairs, that would be when the problems could begin.

Maybe two dozen tried the ti in my time there and perhaps I should have dressed them down over it but was unsure, myself, if I could demand a vi or not – after all, respect needs to be something earned, rather than ordered. If the girl was a troublemaker and she was trying it on out of disrespect, then I’d always ask if she addressed everyone by ti.

Some, from strict families, always used the Mr. Higham and that was fine. So we had a situation where different students were addressing me by different names and it didn’t seem to faze anyone.

Taking this back to primary or even secondary school, as in the Faversham case which opened this post, there would seem to be no justification whatever for calling the teacher by a first name and I have issues with a teacher’s need for a child who is not her child calling her by a first name. Teachers tend to get very close to their students if they love them, which all teachers are meant to do but that arises from how she treats them, not from a directive from above saying, “You will love your teacher and call her by her first name.”

We love ordering people around over personal matters these days, don’t we?

In the case of male-female relations in Russia – which might have been mentioned here before and anyway, you’d know about that – it was also covered in parts of my three-part book – there is an interesting process. We’re assuming here, of course, that it’s appropriate for that man and lady to become friendly. Many young Russian men would immediately go with ti with peer group females but an older man would use imya-ochestva and vi, until the lady allowed him more familiarity – “davai na ti” [let’s go with ti].  Even the verb “davai” is a ti-based second person singular/familiar so the person who utters it has already made the jump.

If a foreign man had romantic hopes, he’d drop in, at some stage, to the diminutive and vi, which would be a clear signal to her that it was possible, if she wished to take it further – it gave her the choice. What complicated it was our rigid structure, in English, of James or Mr. Higham and as there is no Russian equivalent, then here is me using diminutive-vi with her and her having to decide. James has no diminutive so it can be both and therefore, the vi or ti is the critical thing.

Some ladies would drop into English to solve the problem and others would use body language to telegraph the invitation or rebuff. One or two might use their own formal first name and that telegraphed that it went back to a distance. No one would go right back to Mr Higham because it would have been insulting, except in an ironic or lighthearted way.

This then comes down to what stage had already been reached. If you don’t come on to women, as I don’t, beyond innocuous conversation, then the only way she would have been in that position is if we’d already been having a coffee or were at a movie – in other words, she’d already have guardedly responded.  Best to keep the formality in there, even well into a less formal social setting and then gradually let it slip.

So that solves that problem in Russia. Over here, there’s been zero romance, except for the train girl and the tea-shop girl and that went so quickly to first names that all our other devices in English culture then come in to play.

Back to Russia, the trouble with any girl at university was if she was using James – that already, for them, constitutes familiarity and as I’m using her diminutive-ti, then there is a vacuum in there which could only be resolved by our respective positions and our respective body language would be the only thing left to keep that distance. Thus, it was a knife-edge the whole time and had to be different with each girl – the boys were far easier. Even the process of individualizing was a statement.

None of which addresses the question of those schoolchildren in Faversham being ordered to use Christian names [or first names]. For me, there is no dilemma there whatsoever.

4 comments for “Call me James

  1. Patrick Harris
    September 16, 2010 at 10:56

    Apart from familiarity breeding contempt.
    I can only contribute to this post as an ex-military instructor where, as you might imagine, I was always addressed as Chief and the “‘orrible little specimens” were addressed by surname.
    The only dilemma arose when in front of a mixed pre-commissioning class, normally made up of the ship’s key pesonnel, then it was “sir”, Chief, PO, Hookie and surnames to those with no rank.
    I can see no advantage in ordering primary school children to address their teachers on first name terms.

  2. dearieme
    September 16, 2010 at 13:07

    Am I allowed to refer to a “Bix” tribute band?

  3. dearieme
    September 16, 2010 at 13:07
  4. September 16, 2010 at 16:47

    Patrick – yes.

    Dearieme – re a tribute band: aaaaaaggggghhh!!!

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