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A rose by any other name…

| November 8, 2011 | 0 Comments

By Andrew Cook

Tim Jarvis’s article in Independent Education (‘Known by name’, volume 14, number 2, Winter 2011) was a delight to read.

His quiet wit provided evidence that there are still teachers out there who think of pupils as people – complex, idiosyncratic, illuminating and exasperating, not as statistics on some spreadsheet. Tim’s article set off a train of thought in me. As teachers, we come to know much about those whom we teach. But the reverse is also true. They come to know us too. This is evidenced by the way adolescents give us nicknames which I believe to be a curiously secondary school phenomenon. Their tags are often just as apt as the herders’ for Nguni cattle. My English teacher in Grade 8 was the redoubtable Mr Nuttall who had strict rules about the placement of desks and, much to our disquiet, wept when he read Shakespeare to us. Brilliant, irascible and cantankerous, he was known as ‘Scab’. If you got on the wrong side of this old man you would know exactly why. I was later taught the same subject by the inimitable ‘Slash’ who left no doubt that English was not for sissies.

Buzzy, Iceberg, Fungi and Dad When I began teaching there were men who gloried in the nicknames ‘Buzzy’ Gathorne, ‘Driver’ Thompson (short for bus driver because of his sartorial inelegance) and ‘Bony’ Carter. Great men all of them and ones for whom any boy would have been happy to shed the burden of some deepriven slight. But there were those whose nicknames would have given their students pause: ‘Smoothie’, and ‘Skim’ – men whose word could not be trusted because they gave it too easily. Other names were less kind and more pointedly dismissive: ‘Smurf ’ and ‘Scrotum’, ‘Thug’ and ‘Cuff ’.

So much in secondary school teaching depends upon the appeal to adolescent boys’ sense of humour. I wonder if it is the same for girls? One of my esteemed colleagues was a British Israelite and smoked a pipe for many years. He was called ‘Pecky’. Another chaplain smoked a pipe and was called ‘Stinky Jesus’. His successor was a shy man, promptly christened ‘Creeping Jesus’. A great Maths teacher, not known for his ready sense of humour, was called ‘Iceberg’. A teacher who set his Science class a test on his first day was instantly dubbed ‘Hess’. His surname was Rudolph.

Surnames were always grist to the nickname mill: ‘Chalky White’, ‘Porky Hogg’ and ‘Floyd’ Paterson. Physical idiosyncrasies also found their place: ‘Chunky’ Willis was an extremely slender man; ‘Isaiah’ had had a difficult birth which left him with one eyebrow higher than the other. ‘Fungi’ was a Biology teacher who sported a beard which frequently trapped evidence of his lunch.

Peer nicknames were just as apt and memorable: ‘Dad’ Lindop was a boy who could have been Headboy in his Grade 8 year such was his maturity; ‘Twiggy’ Tasker was a great friend who was as slender as a reed when I first met him. ‘Droopy’ Jones was a First XV winger not renowned for his courage who managed in a moment of complete panic to kick the ball in a high looping arc – backwards! ‘Shlabati’ did not wash as regularly as he ought. ‘Triple S’ (named for the sporty version of the Datsun motor car) was a gorgeous and flirtatious St Anne’s girl. ‘Rusty’ was not the sharpest tool in the shed and was heard upon breaking his ankle to shout in agony, “My wrist, my wrist, my wrist!” A mate of mine was not fleet of foot like Achilles (or even Ajax for that matter) and was called ‘Slow’. His younger brothers were called ‘Slower’ and ‘Fullstop’.

What makes a nickname stick, often down the years, I wonder? Is it something to do with its aptness, its cruelty, its irony? Why do many teachers never gain a nickname? Why do some men glory in their pet names? Others face years of derision and slight because of theirs. I don’t know but what I can say is that like those Nguni cattle, we were known. Thanks for the article.

Category: Featured Articles, Summer 2011

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