This post may contain words offensive to some readers.
Nicknames: most of us have one, maybe more. Usually those around us give them to us. When I was born, I was a solid baby, and a long baby. My first nickname given to me by my parents was ‘Big Bird’. And to this day, they still bust it out, now and again.
Once I started school, I was quickly named ‘Mars’ or ‘Mars Bar’ by my primary school peers. Harmless and fun. Nothing hurtful about these nicknames.
Then came high school- ‘Bostik’ (the glue stick, as I was straight up and down, no curves, didn’t have boobs yet) and ‘skeletor’ due to my somewhat bony, gangly frame. ‘Millhouse’ because I was often the silly sidekick to a cool best friend. I have to say, these names just didn’t bother me. Later in school, I got ‘Maz’ and that has stuck. I’ve also had ‘Meemy’, ‘Meems’ and ‘Mimi’.
I was covering a senior music class (I’m a teacher) when the topic of nicknames came up. We all had a good laugh as we took turns revealing the silly, sometimes nonsensical names we’d had put upon us.
And then a voice cut through the laughs: “You think nicknames are fun? DO YOU? Because I’ve spent years being called ‘Faggot’. ‘Queer’. ‘Fat-arse’. ‘Pillow biter’. How is that fun? How is that harmless?”
We sat there in stunned silence. This student was always quiet, always pleasant, always respectful and most definitely heterosexual. However, his high-pitched voice, slight stature and lack of chest hair and biceps made him a ‘faggot’.
His subject choices, such as Food Technology, Music, Art and Drama sealed his fate. These aren’t ‘male’ subjects, are they? Just because he chose not to do metal work and timber technology, he clearly wasn’t a ‘man’ in the eyes of some of his peers, and these bullies used this as fuel for their own homophobia.
Even if he was gay- would that make these names OK? Would you be able to justify it? Of course not! It’s bigotry at its finest.
“Surely you’ve had fun nicknames?” I ventured. “From your parents, or in primary school?” He looked straight at me and said, “I was labeled a ‘fag’ in Grade 4. So no: I haven’t had any fun nicknames. My parents call me by my actual name, as do my friends. The only time I get called a name that isn’t actually my own, is when I’m walking across the quad and people call out “hey Brokeback- I just can’t quit you!”
I don’t want to offer him platitudes like ‘Bullies are cowards’ or ‘this will pass’, because it was obvious he had been told this before, and evidently, it hadn’t changed a thing. I wanted to apologize for what he’d been through, but knew it would sound hollow- what good would an apology from a teacher do, when his persecutors lay in wait? So I listened to him, after class. I let him unload years of hurt. I so badly wanted to hug him- but that’s against the law.
I reported his bullying to the appropriate channels. His fear was that it would make the bullying worse. It was my fear too. He changed schools not long after this. I think of him often, and I hope and pray he has found a place where he feels safe, worthy and comfortable.
So I ask you: what’s in a nickname? I’d always thought of them as a term of endearment, something harmless, fun- even cute. I was wrong.
What nicknames have you been given? Have you ever been called names that hurt?