Two years ago, on the first day of school, my daughter Emmy came home talking nonstop about “Allie.” Allie was so fun! Allie was so cool! Allie was so awesome! I told her that perhaps we could set up a playdate with “Allie” if it was OK with her parents.
Emmy looked at me quizzically. “I can have a playdate with my teacher?”
“Not with your teacher,” I said. “With your new friend Allie.”
“My new friend Allie is my teacher,” said Emmy.
I froze like a deer in headlights. “Why are you calling your teacher Allie instead of Mrs. Montgomery?”
“She just said her name is Allie,” Emmy said with a shrug.
(Cue the screams here.)
I should have known what I was getting myself into. When Emmy was going into first grade, I enrolled her in a private school that was founded in the 1960s with a very liberal, cooperative mindset that is still in place today. Parents are required to volunteer in the classroom on a weekly basis, the school boasts its own gardens (planted and tended to by the first-graders), and it takes great care to create not just stellar students but people who are concerned about humanity, nature and learning for the sake of learning. (There are no lettered or numbered grades given on assignments.)
But I never got the memo that every adult in the school is referred to by his or her first name. From the janitorial staff to the teachers, the administrators, all the way up to the head of school, they are all called by their first name.
I went straight to the head of school the next day and voiced my concerns. I told her that I thought it was odd that a 6-year-old would call an adult by his or her first name. She asked me why I felt that way. And I told her: “A child should treat their elders with respect. And that means calling them Mr. and Mrs.”
“Our policy is much different,” said the head of school. “Everyone here deserves respect. And just because you’ve lived longer doesn’t automatically entitle someone to more respect than a young person.”
In the black community particularly, this is just not done. In nursery school, Emmy would sometimes call the younger teachers Miss Lisa and Miss Sofie. But no title at all? This was going to be a tough one for me to handle.
Ultimately, I decided that all of the other things I loved about the school outweighed the uncomfortable feeling I got from hearing Emmy call her teacher “Allie.”
The students also call the parents of their schoolmates by their first name. So when I volunteer in her class, I’m greeted with, “Hi, Aliya!” I used to grit my teeth and shudder inside. I wanted to scream: “How dare you call me Aliya! My name is Mrs. King!”
But the more I thought about it, the more I could see where her school was coming from. Just because Emmy calls the adults by their first name doesn’t mean she’s disrespectful. She knows who her elders are and accords them the proper behavior. The only thing missing is the “Mr.” or “Mrs.” title that we’re used to hearing.
I’ve had to ask myself: Does she really need to call someone by a title and his or her last name to show respect? How do the titles “Mr.” or “Miss” or “Mrs.” confer respect? If it’s simply tradition, can it be changed? If not, why?
Emmy is in third grade now. I’ve made my peace with the fact that she calls the adults by their first name. And that her classmates can call me by mine.
But my upbringing is too ingrained to allow Emmy to do this outside of school. So she’s getting an early lesson in code-switching.
Because at my mama’s house? And in the neighborhood? Every adult has a title. And Emmy had better remember to use it.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.