Wednesday, April 15, 2009


The note in my inbox has a simple ending.

I look forward to seeing you there.



It’s such a friendly ending. And even though I know she sent this letter to several thousand people, and even though I know she wouldn’t know me if we met on the street, and even though this note is coming from the University of Alberta and the line below her name says
Indira V. Samarasekera
President and Vice-Chancellor …

I can’t seem to shake the feeling that she sent that letter directly to me. It’s the personal style that does it, the warmth that comes with the simple use of her first name. If ever I meet her on the street, it will be all I can do not to call her Indira.
I’ve come to believe that naming is an important part of human relationships, that in my case especially, it carries a hefty emotional impact. Take, as an example, this little grudge I’ve carried for thirty years or so. My colleagues and I had been gathered in a board room to meet our new CEO. He’d come all the way from Ontario just to lead us. The room was tingling with anticipation. Things got started on a friendly enough note, a little formal perhaps, but friendly. He invited us to come to him any time we had concerns or ideas, and then he said, “I’m asking you to call me Mr. Evans. It’s a mark of respect for the position.”
The impact of this one short sentence was far greater than he had envisioned. Fifteen minutes later that speech was taking on a life of its own, repeated and savoured by employees in the bathrooms of the office. It even got an official title. We came to know it as the Just-Call-Me-Pete speech. If anybody did a little bit extra, say refilling an empty toilet paper dispenser, or mopping up a bit of spilled coffee, that job was said to be done out of respect for the position.
Mr. Evans turned out to be a good boss. He didn’t even waste much time becoming it. It was only a few hours before he began to show his genuine caring, his empathetic nature, his eagerness to fit into an Alberta office landscape. But it was too late to make a clean start. With a simple sentence he had brushed a stroke of tarnish on our shining hope, and the humour generated at his expense was too disrespectful to be shared for his enjoyment.
The whole naming thing has been an issue with me this winter. Once again the icy winds of January found me taking up a place at the front of a classroom, an accidental professor, an expert of sorts who can safely say that she never once aspired to a career in academia. The desks were occupied by a broad range of students, some maybe as young as 20, others pushing 50. Before I could say”Good evening class,” somebody had already called me Dr. Edey.
“I’m not a doctor,” I said, already aware of the misunderstanding that lurked on the threshold. They assumed I was being humble. Actually, I was being factual, and more than that, judicious. The College of Alberta Psychologists has decreed that no psychologist licensed in Alberta may misrepresent her credentials, which she will be deemed to have done if she cannot show evidence that she has taken direct steps to correct descriptive errors made by others.
“Please call me Wendy,” I begged. I’ve had to ask newspapers to print official retractions. I didn’t want to put any of these students through that! I knew as I said it that this was not humility talking, not even truly factuality or judiciousness. Even if I had a Ph.D. I wouldn’t want to be called Dr. Edey every Tuesday night for thirteen weeks. It doesn’t suit me.
Soon things took on the familiarity that comes with a Tuesday night routine. I learned to call them by name. The classroom atmosphere was friendly. Most of them called me Wendy. Some of them didn’t call me anything at all.
Still, this experience wasn’t exactly like my previous flirtations with accidental professorhood. There was one among them who called me “Teacher.” Factually accurate by any standard, it sounded funny in a university class. I wanted to say, “No no. That’s not me. That’s my daughter.” My daughter teaches elementary school. Lots of kids call her Teacher.
To my surprise, I didn’t say it. I might have said it the first night, but the impulse passed quickly. He’s a new Canadian, and something warned me that he wouldn’t feel right if he tried to use my first name. In the final analysis, Teacher isn’t such a bad thing to be called, even for an accidental professor.

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