As I was sitting in a room full of French high-school students yesterday, I got to thinking about names.
Midway through the English lesson I was observing my colleague teach, a student had a question. He raised his hand, but Jean-Philippe didn’t see him. “Monsieur?” the student then called out to him, finally grabbing the attention of the teacher.
In English calling someone you know sir, mister, or madam sounds archaic and unnatural. Yet in France, monsieur and madam (without first or last names following the title) is the natural form in which students address their teacher.
Names are significant. They so easily transform from simple words, into representations of complex ideas, emotions, and memories. There are names you’ll adore, having once belonged to a first love or favorite literary hero. Then there are the names you’ll detest, having once adorned a boy or girl who broke your heart, or a friend who betrayed you.
Names can appear static and unchanging. For some, perhaps they are. But as my student called out to his teacher in class yesterday, I realized how many times my name has transformed over the past few years.
A hippie-philosopher friend of mine once voiced the opinion that everyone’s favorite sound is the enunciation of his or her own name. Do you think that’s true? I know I love hearing my own name. But which one? Alexandra, Alex, Alejandra, Sasha, Miss Sasha, Miss Alexandra, Oleksandra Georgivna, Ms. Angel, Madame…all of these are calls I’ve answered to. Alexandra in the States, Alex by people who don’t know me well, and Sasha by my Ukrainian or Peace Corps friends. My students in Ukraine called me Miss Alexandra or Miss Sasha, sometimes arguing amongst each other as to whether Miss Sasha was too informal. Some students used to jokingly call me Oleksandra Georgivna, presenting me with the patronymic that would have been given at birth had I been born Ukrainian or Russian.
I’ve always loved my name. Alexandra is classic and versatile: typical yet noble in English, and timeless in French. It translates well into Spanish. Even in Ukraine, people would ask if I had Ukrainian origins. “Alexandra is a good Russian name,” they’d tell me.
Last week, during class, a student had a question and addressed me as Madame. It was the first time a student has done so. It was formal and new. But I’ll take it. I’ll treasure it and view it as another nuance to my name. As the moniker “Miss Sasha” became a symbol of my time as a teacher in Ukraine, being called Madame will add a new French history to my name and identity: another name to represent my experiences and the person I am.