Nicknames And Pronouns And Choices, Oh My

“Zit. Call me Zit. My friends call me Zit.”

“No. I won’t. That’s disgusting,” the high school teacher replied. “It says here your name is Zebadiah Taylor.” She pointed at the attendance sheet in her hand.

“My initials spell Zit. Everyone calls me that. Even my parents.”

“Well, I’m not.” Tonya Stern shook her head. “Zebadiah is a beautiful name. If I remember my Bible study correctly, it means ‘Gift from God.’ He gave you that name. That was the name you were born with, intended to have.”

“No,” the gangly sophomore with a contradicting zit-free complexion corrected. “My mother gave me that name. She named me after an ancestor who was a Civil War hero. Thought I’d be called Zeb.”

Mrs. Stern’s face radiated with suspicion. “What side was he on in the War Between the States?” The glint in her eyes hinted at expectations that the argumentative youth had Northern roots.

“The South, of course. The Confederacy.” Zit’s response stretched like an elongated “Duh.”

“Oh,” Tonya Stern exhaled with disappointment. “You’re a Southern boy. So, why aren’t you called Zeb?” She stepped forward and glared at the teenager.

“Because I was four pounds, two ounces when I was born and when my daddy first saw me, he said, ‘Why he ain’t no bagger’s a zit!’ And then the nurse, she was like looking at my charts and started to chuckle. ‘Hey,’ she said, ‘his initials spell zit, Zebadiah Ian Taylor.’ Everyone laughed and Daddy said, ‘Well, I guess we’ll be calling him Zit.’”

“Well, I won’t, Zebadiah,” Mrs. Stern said. She wasn’t about to give in to teenage defiance on the first day of school.

A transfer-student, Zit Taylor—Zebadiah if you wish—did not want to be known by his archaic first name at his new school. Not in a world of Liams, Ethans, and Coopers. And the rebel in him relished the reactions his nickname triggered.

The boy craned his neck. “Hey, everyone,” he announced as he gazed around the room, “please, call me Zit.”

The request was followed by a chorus of Zits.

“OK, then. Let’s move on.” Mrs. Stern, frustration twitching her lips, continued attendance, “Emily Tennyson?”

“Here,” a light, cheery voice answered. “But call me Bambi.”

“Oh, that’s cute. Bambi. Did you like that story or movie when you were little?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Me, too.”

“Whoa,” an agitated male voice interrupted. “You’re gonna accept her nickname just like that after rejecting Zit’s just ‘cuz you don’t like it?”

“Yes, I am.”

“He asked you very politely to call him Zit because that is his preference. We get to decide who we are, not you.”

Hushed agreements wafted through the room. The boy who had spoken continued. “Zit, you’re awesome, bro. Welcome.” Louder sounds of agreement followed.

A girl sitting in the back row cut in sharply, addressing the teacher. “That’s not fair. Aren’t you being a hypocrite?”

“Me? Why?” the teacher asked with incredulity.

“My sister was in your class when you got married, Mrs. Stern. Only you were Ms. Gruber then. The name you were born with, the name God gave you.”

“Yes, but when you get married . . .”

“And your name isn’t Tonya, is it?” the girl asked. “I can remember when Jessica told us at dinner that a kid at school had found out that Ms. Gruber’s real name is Tondalaya.” Gasps and giggles filled the classroom. “Exactly. That’s how we reacted. Such an ugly name. No. I mean unusual name. But apparently, you didn’t like it either, the name God gave you, the name you were born with, so you became Tonya. And you had every right to do that.”

“OK. OK,” Mrs. Stern responded. “I get your point. God doesn’t give names directly. Families do. But maybe He puts the thought into family members’ heads.” She gazed past the students through a window for a moment. “I will consider your request, Zebadiah.” She studied the boy, confusion and concession wrestling on her face. “Nevertheless, I am disgusted by the name Zit.”

She sighed and returned her focus to the attendance sheet. “Matthew Welles? Oh, the baseball star.”

“That’s me, I guess. But I’m Matt.” Mrs. Stern smiled, relieved by the lack of complication. “And I use they/them pronouns.”

“Oh, Lord, why?”

“Because I don’t always feel 100% like a he. And besides, I don’t prescribe to the limiting he/she dichotomy. We’re all mixes, whether we acknowledge and accept it or not.”

A new voice cut in. “We already use they/them for individuals when we don’t know the gender of the subject or want it revealed. Like on the news last night, a reporter said, “The unidentified jury member said they personally had struggled with the guilty verdict because of the possibility of the death penalty.”

Bambi added with urgency, “And there’s an unstated, systemic hierarchy in the he/she dichotomy. ‘He’ seems to always come first, the power position. It’s sexist.”

“Hey,” Mrs. Stern snapped, “I’m the teacher here.” She threw her hands in the air as if to say, “I give up.” As her students chuckled at her visible frustration, she returned to her desk, collapsed into her chair, fell forward, face on the desk, and groaned, “I need a vacation.” 

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Tom Nussbaum
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