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52 Weeks Begin Now: Week Forty-Nine: What’s in a Name? My Journey of Names

17 Jun

What’s in a Name?  My Journey of Names


Dr. Shelley Robinson

The Significance of Titles:  Our society seems fascinated with this idea of titles or we would not keep using them.  Both women and men have been addressing each other with titles in front of sir-names for centuries.  It has been a way to formalize social significance and relevance, business prominence and academic status.  It helps people to understand that certain people fit into various social categories, perhaps due to their status by birth, marriage, caste system, regal relationships, academic performance and other.  For example, when women move from the title of Miss to Mrs., it has traditionally been the way to show that they belong to, or are (in some countries) owned by their husbands. Having a title is also a way to remind people of our roles in a hierarchical organization such as the military where there are clear chains of command.

For the “entitled” person, a title can help define us to the world in ways that mean something to us and everyone around us.  However, I have also learned that having a title can be perceived as a means of setting us apart from the people around us.  I have learned that titles can garner respect, admiration, jealousy, disinterest, curiosity, confusion and a sense of belonging in various communities.  My observations in my own experience in this journey of titles is simply this: whether we choose to take on a title, or to ignore it altogether, people pay attention.

Miss:  In the past, when people referenced me as Miss Robinson, I got the distinct impression that they were reminding me and others around me of my age and the fact that they did not see a ring on my finger.  Being a “Miss” felt as though I was very young and very single.  However, when  I was referred to as Miss Robinson by my students, as opposed to them simply referring to me as my first name, which is Shelley, I felt as though I was being treated with respect as their teacher.

I grew up in a family where I referred to all my parents’ friends by their last names.  I would not think of calling my parents’ generation (friends or otherwise) by their first names.  It just did not seem appropriate, and my parents nor their friends encouraged me to use their first names.  To this day, I have a difficult time referring to anyone who is in a higher position of authority, age or position of respect by their first names.

Mrs.:  When I was getting married, this idea of being referred to as a Mrs. was both exciting and perplexing.  I was not keen on giving up my last name as I was born with it, and had accomplished a lot in my academic and professional work with the name Robinson.  However, I found this idea of identifying myself as a married woman a very acceptable shift to everyone around me.  At my age, it was just the socially acceptable thing to do and like all rites of passage, the wedding and celebration encouraged it.

However, to give up my last name was a major life shift for me.  I struggled with this shift because I didn’t recognize myself by the name, nor did any of the music community where I had established myself as a musician.  Each time I had people refer to me by this other name, I looked around to see who it was.  I also felt as though I was giving up on the Robinson name as the oldest child.  I worried that if my sister and I changed our names, and our children took our new married names, the Robinson name would be lost.  As it happened, my son did take on the Smith name, and my sisters’ children are now Taylor, and so the Robinson name will not pass down through my father’s line.  However, I returned to my maiden name after my divorce, and continued on in my life both personally and professionally as a Robinson.  It felt like putting on an old pair of comfortable shoes, and I decided not to make another change to my last name again.  However, giving up the title and name was easier for me than the world around me.  My son then had a different last name than myself.  When I travelled, people had difficulty wondering why I was not a Mrs.  It is less common around the world to be a woman over 40 without a married title.

Ms.:  However, the conundrum of titles continued.  As I aged, it was obvious that I was not a Miss to people any longer.  People stumbled over calling me Ma’m and I had no ring on my finger to identify myself as a Mrs.  The title choice then remained to be called a Ms.  For some women, this title is a source of pride and neutrality that prevents them from falling into any social category.  I remember my French teacher demanding that her students never forget that she was a Ms.

For me, it reminded me that I was now a “mature”, unmarried, and confusing social anomaly to the general population, including myself.  I was not impressed with this idea that I had to announce on paper forms at every turn that I was now “divorced”, and a “Ms.”  In fact, I would often defiantly check off “single” and refrain from choosing off any title at all.  Whose business was my title anyway?

Dr.:   After many years of being in formal education to achieve a doctorate of education, I graduated with a PhD.  At the graduation, we were told by our valedictorian to never be embarrassed by our education and titles; rather, to be proud of our experience and knowledge in the world of academia and beyond.  It was an important name to share with others, including the younger generation of academics, and in my case, young women who aspired to the same level of education.  I was told by a couple of fellow graduands that same convocation that the title Dr. could never be taken from me.  When I returned to school the day after my graduation ceremony, the principal at that time, had my name plate on the door changed.  It now proudly announced that I was Dr. Robinson.  In Alberta, this academic status change was well-respected, and I felt good to have students calling me Doc Rob.  As well, with some relief, I no longer had to explain my lack of marital status.

However, what I have learned recently is that this title is also one that other people find intimidating.  In a world where academic accomplishment can be perceived as pretentious, we are sometimes encouraged to shed out titles.  Therefore, despite being called Dr. Robinson for a number of years in Alberta and then in BC; now in rural BC, and smaller community settings, I have been told that the norm is to refer to each other without titles, and by our first names.  For me, giving up both my title and my last name has been difficult, but I have embraced this idea given the cultural disposition and in some cases, outward hostility towards what they perceive to be an unnecessary formality.

Reclaiming My Name:  What becomes apparent to me is that my name is my own choice.  My name is also a sense of personal and professional identity.  I can choose my own name and title, and yet, I need to be thoughtful of being new to a community where this does not seem to be socially understood or acceptable.  I suppose I need to examine why the title and last name are important to me.  Do I need to be distinguished as academically superior, or is this title something that I should be proud of representing all of my hard work?  It was a very rigorous program and a huge accomplishment to complete as a single mother at a time where I was working full time.  As well, does being referred to by my first name actually strip me of my self-respect?  Has my upbringing of being referred to my last name make this my preference in the work world right?

But then after over-thinking all of the above and this matter of having had four titles and two last names in my lifetime, I find myself gravitating towards this final conclusion.  I think when I am about to turn 50 years old, I can choose to be called by any name that I choose.  Perhaps I’ll refrain from being called Queen of Sheba or Madam President and especially single names like God.  However, I think that my name Dr. Shelley Robinson needs to be reclaimed for my own re-identification.  I am a Dr. due to my academic degree because I have earned it.  As well, I am no longer a Miss, Mrs. nor Ms.  But most importantly, I want to carry on the Robinson name, and I would like to be referred to it as a form of respect when working with people in the world at large.  My first name has, and will always be Shelley, but I will continue to reserve it for those who are close to me in family, personal and professional circles.