"Yes, Miss," replied a small blond boy. "But can you call me Rodney, please?" I was puzzled. Was Rodney his middle name? It wasn't. Did anyone else call him Rodney his family, perhaps? "No, Miss." I wasn't sure what to do. He looked back at me, his blue eyes hopeful.
"So, I'd be the only person in the whole wide world who called you Rodney?" I said, somewhat acidly. "Yes, Miss," he beamed, innocent as a dove. "If you don't mind. I thought it would make a change." I left a meaningful pause, narrowed my eyes at him, went back to the register and called "Edward?" again. After a few beats, he replied, a hint of sadness in his voice for the name that might have been.
I had to sympathise. He had just left junior school, a big Edward-shark in a little pond, and arrived at secondary school a tiny Edward-minnow in an ocean of hormonal, broad-shouldered piranhas with shirts hanging out and knees at his eye level. Obviously sharp, he'd worked out that he was going to be a nobody, someone that got shoved in corridors and mistaken for all other blond Year 7 boys.
He was right. That's what can happen at secondary school. You get submerged, and unless you make some kind of fuss you may never get talked to again for more than 30 seconds by anyone except your peers. The form tutor is busy sorting out the musical prodigies and sports champions on the one hand and the serial truants and graffiti artists on the other, all of whom do a grand job of creating an identity. The subject teachers are bravely juggling the gifted and talented and the coursework-dodgers. But you? You just beaver away in the corner, give in the homework and keep your tie the regulation length, but no one will acknowledge you, let alone call you Rodney on request.
Another teacher told me I should get eye contact with every student at least once each lesson, just to say, "'I know you're there." I've tried it, and it helps, except that sometimes with a big class I must look as if I've been watching Wimbledon too long. But it seems a poor substitute for real one-to one interaction, something more than a rushed word as I race to the next lesson.
Edward, ironically, made his mark with me the day he asked to be Rodney. He's a nascent Charles Dickens, too, and carving out a nice little profile for himself that way. But he could easily have chosen another route, although anyone who voluntarily chose to be called Rodney probably never was going to threaten teachers with blunt instruments to get noticed.
Sometimes, though, even the Rodneys take desperate measures, and that's something none of us can afford to ignore.
teaches at an independent school in London