Geoffrey got off his bike in front of Bob Tschaggeny’s home and sat down on the front steps with him.
“Monday it will start all over again,” said Bob. “School isn’t bad except for that first day. The teacher looks at my name ‘Tschaggeny’ on the card and doesn’t know how to pronounce it. He’s embarrassed and so am I. The same thing happens every year.”
“I know just what you mean,” said Geof, “but it’s my first name they can’t pronounce. The teacher starts to say ‘George,’ then tries ‘Geeof,’ and then ends up with ‘Jeff.’ Half the time they just call me George and I have to explain that my name is pronounced ‘Jeff.’”
“What would it be like to have a simple name?” mused Bob.
“Hi, Geof,” called their friend Mary who was walking along the sidewalk. “What are you two talking about? You look like the end of the world has come.”
“Not the world,” said Geof. “It’s the end of summer.”
“I’m glad,” said Mary. “I like school.”
“You would,” said Bob, “with a name like yours.”
“My name is dull,” responded Mary. “Mary Jones—how plain and ordinary!”
“Right,” said Geof, “but you don’t have to spell it or tell people how to pronounce it. Bob hates to have his name said wrong too. No teacher has said my name right yet.”
“But your names are distinguished. They’re different. They make you a somebody. Mary Jones—how bland. I wish my name were exciting. One year a girl named Huttaballe sat in front of me. The teacher said to her, ‘What an interesting name. What nationality is it?’ Then she looked at my card and just said, ‘Oh, Mary Jones.’”
That night Bob said to his parents, “Isn’t there something we could do with our name so it would be easier to pronounce? Why do we have a silent T in front?”
“Tschaggeny is an honorable Swiss name, son. You should be proud of it,” Father replied. “Our name has been on the records since 1500.”
In the Gordon home that night, Geof said to his mother, “Why did you have to name me after the old poet Geoffrey Chaucer? If you wanted to call me Jeff, why didn’t you spell it J-e-f-f?”
“We didn’t name you after the poet, Geof,” said his mother. “We thought that spelling your name with a “G” looked better with Gordon, and it seemed to suit you very well.”
As Mary Jones helped her mother with the dishes that night, she said, “I always thought it would be nice to have a distinctive name, but Bob Tschaggeny and Geoffrey Gordon are disgusted because they have to spell and pronounce their names for our new teacher every year. I guess none of us are satisfied.”
“Mary,” said her mother, “every time I say your name I remember all the lovely Marys I’ve known or read about. It makes your name even more beautiful to me.”
Monday morning, Bob, Geof, and Mary were seated at their desks in school, waiting to welcome their new teacher. He stood behind his desk, very tall and very straight. He nodded to the class and then wrote the word “One” on the chalkboard.
When the bell rang, the teacher said, “You will each notice a number on the upper left-hand corner of your desk. That number will identify you. We will no longer use names. Your number should be put at the top of all your papers too. You are to address me as ‘One.’”
The class began, and through reading, social studies, arithmetic, and gym, each student was called by a number. No names were used. Bob and Geof thought the idea was great. Their problem seemed to be solved.
During supper that night, Bob’s father asked him if the new teacher could pronounce his name correctly.
“He didn’t have to,” laughed Bob. “We don’t have names this year. The teacher gave each of us a number instead.”
“Do you like that better?” asked his father.
“Well,” said Bob, “It’s been great so far.”
“So you really don’t need a name,” his father questioned further. “It seems very impersonal to me.”
“I still like it fine,” Bob insisted, but he didn’t sound quite so sure this time.
When Geof came home from school his mother asked, “Well, who is it this time? George, Geeof, or Geof?”
“None of those,” said Geof. “This year I’m ‘Ten.’” Then he explained the new teacher’s system of using numbers.
“That’s interesting,” said Mother, “How does he call the numbers? Does he say each one loudly with a different feeling or tone?”
“Nope,” said Geof, “he just stands tall and straight and says numbers without a smile or a nod or any feeling.”
“Guess what? We don’t need names this year,” Mary told her mother when she reached home after school.
“What do you mean?” asked Mother.
“We all have numbers so we don’t use any names. And would you believe it, I’m ‘Thirteen.’ Isn’t that different for me to be called something distinctive?”
In a few weeks the novelty of being known as numbers had worn off. Mary, Bob, and Geof were glad when Friday night came so that for two days at least they would be called by their own names. All the children agreed that school didn’t seem the same as it had other years. Everyone was disinterested. There was no spirit of competition or sharing and little concern about success or failure.
One Monday morning on the way to school Mary saw Bob and Geof just poking along.
“What’s wrong now?” she called.
“What fun is it to go to school and just be ‘Ten’ again?” Geof asked.
“Or ‘Thirteen’” Mary replied. “I don’t like being called ‘Thirteen.’ I like the way my mother calls me ‘Mary’ and I wish everyone else would too.”
“Well, I wish …” But Bob’s wish was cut off by the sound of the bell, and the three friends hurried to class.
At the door of the classroom the teacher stood smiling. He handed each of them a piece of chalk and said, “Good morning. Please take this chalk and write your full name on the board with the others.”
After the last student sat down, they all looked up at the chalkboard. It was covered with the names of everyone in class and it looked good! Across the top in large letters the name SAM SMITH was written.
The teacher turned to the class. “Thank you,” he said, “for cooperating with me in my experiment these past weeks. You helped me prove something. When you became a number, you each seemed to become less of a person. You were interested and excited boys and girls at the beginning of the school year. Now you don’t seem to care much about school or each other.”
The students looked around at their classmates as the teacher continued, “My name is Sam Smith. I’m glad to know each of you by your names—Thomas Ward, Robert Tschaggeny, Geoffrey Gordon, Mary Jones, John Martin. …”
Mr. Smith looked at each one with a friendly smile on his face as he said the names. “Now let’s remember who we really are and work together,” he suggested.
“Thank you, Mr. Sam Smith,” Bob said.
“Yes, thank you, Mr. Smith,” the other boys and girls chorused. “That’ll be great!”