Just don't call me Doris

19th March 2004 at 00:00
To the best of my knowledge I have never been knighted. I mean, I'd remember if I had, wouldn't I? (A quick trip to the palace and a nice shiny gong marked "services to FE" - or nowadays perhaps "services to self and New Labour"). So, gong-less as I am, why is it that a good 50 per cent of my students still insist on calling me Sir?

It's respectful, they say by way of explanation, although as soon as you think about it you realise there's no respect involved at all. What they're really talking about is habit - the habit that's been drummed into them during a decade of Sir-ing their way through their schooldays.

By the same token it's not full either - in fact it's entirely empty: empty of meaning; empty of thought; empty of that one thing it's meant to be full of - respect.

So what's the alternative? "Stephen" doesn't seem so hard to me, but to them it's fraught with difficulties. "Sir Stephen" is what you get, which makes you think you should be sitting round a table next to Sir Lancelot.

"Mr" they might try as an alternative, but that has a habit of ending up as "Mr...Stephen" - so now you're suddenly a ladies' hairdresser.

In the unlikely event that they do manage to grasp the concept, as like as not they'll call you by someone else's first name rather than your own.

And why is it that the other male teachers they confuse you with invariably turn out to be older, uglier or battier than you consider yourself to be? And then there areall those paranoid hours you have to spend in front of the mirror, persuading yourself that you are not really like Jim, Chris or Harry at all.

In abstracted moments they'll call you anything that comes to hand, which is why I've also been known to answer to Miss, Mrs Jones and Mummy; though never, curiously, Dad or Daddy.

Teacher, Teach or Teacher man I can live with, but the handles that are not intended to reach my ears tend to be less endearing. It's not that I mind being dubbed a git, but as it invariably comes complete with the adjective "old", it's just another unwelcome reminder of how much I really do have in common with Jim, Chris and Harry. "Tosser" is not so bad, either, if the truth be known - which of course it never is - but sadly it too has its own adjectival barb - "fat" being the preferred option in this case.

In saying all this, I am of course aware that not everyone involved in the teaching of the post-16s has quite the same aversion to the "S" word as I do. Indeed, I gather that some lecturers expend just as much effort in persuading their students to use it as I do in preventing them.

I remember the biggest faux pas I committed on my teaching practice was calling my mentor "Trev" in front of his students. Trev was a bit on the conventional side, it has to be said. Rumour had it that he was once barred from the world's most boring man contest on the grounds that it wouldn't be fair on the other contestants.

At first I didn't quite understand what he was getting so hot under the collar about. What did he expect me to call him - Doris? But no, that wouldn't do, either. It seemed that, as far as the students were concerned, no one on the staff of Trev's college had a first name, or at least if they did they were closely-guarded secrets. And the fact that Trev was listed in the prospectus as Trevor Crispin, alongside the full names of all the other lecturers, up to and including the principal, just didn't seem to figure.

It would be nice to think that uncertainties over the name game were limited to the students, but not a bit of it. What the staff call each other presents just as many pitfalls. Now that we're all Americans you'd think it'd be simple: first names all round and never a worry of the "what shall I call him?" variety. But hierarchy and the expectation of deference still do strange things to the English psyche, and one suspects that there are as many subtly varied practices as there are colleges.

For instance, one London college apparently has an unwritten rule that first names are fine only up as far as the heads of department. Above that, dignity assumes a capital D, and the beings who reside behind the closed doors of the "corridor of power" expect to be addressed accordingly.

It occurs to me that by now Trev is probably a principal himself, and even Trevor Crispin a distant memory. Or maybe I've got it wrong and the general loosening-up of the past 20 years has worked its way into even Trev's strait-laced consciousness. These days maybe he's just as happy with Doris!

Stephen Jones lectures at a college in south London

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