Dangers abound for the insouciant child, but by far the most treacherous waters to navigate are those of socialization. The survival of one’s formative years is largely dependent upon the learning of arbitrary rules hatched by adults. Even so, where matters of protocol were concerned, I excelled. I rather enjoyed the code of it. I was a quiet child, detail-minded, generally thoughtful, and courteous to a fault. My single downfall, if it could be so called, was that I didn’t like to use peoples’ names.
It’s not something I had never articulated, and no one had ever commented on it to me. But in fact my entire childhood was geared toward determining how to meet my needs without using anyone’s name. These aren’t conscious decisions one comes to, but innate inclinations one happens upon in the course of self realization.
For two years I was able to get by without saying my babysitter’s name. Whenever one of the other kids asked her for something, I could simply attach a “Me too, please!” to the request, and I’d be in. My technique was transparent, and all the more compelling for the “please,” at the end. The “please” is the bane of most kids’ existence. Every book on etiquette obsesses over the necessity of the “please.” And why not? It is, after all, the most important bit. Luckily for me, that word never presented a problem. I savored it, in fact, and the word dropped from my lips like silk.
One of life’s lessons that always comes too late is that avoidance only makes the inevitable worse. I’m not sure how it happened, but something was stuck in my babysitter’s craw the day she made me learn it. I recall running into the kitchen from the heat of a summer afternoon with one of the other children. I always took particular care not to let the screen door slam shut, so thoughtful was I. “Mrs. Dutrow, can I have a glass of kool aid?” asked Mark.
“Me too, please!” I said.
My babysitter retrieved a single plastic cup from the shelf, filled it with cool sugar water, handed it to my colleague, and then regarded me cooly. “Say my name,” she said to me.
My friend took this as his cue to exit, while I stood rooted to my spot on the worn kitchen linoleum. “What?” was all I could muster. There’s nothing like running headlong into an invisible barrier that leaves you questioning your most basic assumptions. What had just happened? I ran the scene through in my head again, but I couldn’t find anything out of place. Sure, there was the tug of guilt because I knew exactly what I’d been getting away with. Yet I couldn’t believe that she would actually confront me about my disinclination to call people by their names. It seemed an outright violation, if not a cheap grab for control.
“You never say my name,” she said. “You never say anyone’s name.” And there it was, the ugly truth. She might as well have said, “You’re short and slightly cross-eyed,” but that would have been stating the obvious at least. This was different. Like that she had just laid out my secret. Fifteen other children under her daily care, and she didn’t care in the least that any one of them might have overheard.