What's in a name? For some teenagers, a lot

Photo of Academy of Mount St. Ursula in The Bronx, New York is by Bernie Scolaro and published with permission.

Bernie Scolaro is a retired school counselor, a past president of the Sioux City Education Association, and former Sioux City school board member.

In the fall of 1972, I was a shy 9th grader entering Mt St. Ursula high school in The Bronx. My legal name was Mary Bernadette, but I always went by my middle name, Bernadette. The first day of classes, teachers had us standing in the front of their rooms until our names were called to be seated according to their seating charts. Each time I heard “Mary” called out, I corrected the teacher and said that I go by my middle name “Bernadette.” First day, every class. I was so embarrassed.

Friends I met in high school soon started calling me Bernie, which has stuck to this day. I never asked to shorten my name to Bernie, since my parents always felt it sounded too “boyish.” However, I did feel that Bernie much more suited my personality, and Bernadette was a bit too formal for this tomboy who liked sports.

My first education job was in Sioux City in 1992 as a school counselor and psychology teacher at Bishop Heelan high school. I taught seniors about developmental stages, including adolescence—a period where you are searching to figure out who you are, and the normal push and pull between independence, peers, parents and family.

My last 21 years prior to retirement, I worked as a counselor at West High School, one of Sioux City’s public schools. Whether counseling in a private or a public high school, I found students had the same needs. They were looking to be accepted for who they were and who they were becoming. As anxiety and depression have become less stigmatized in society, we have become more aware of how societal, peer, and parental pressures are affecting the mental health of our youth. Iowa’s youth didn’t need us to add Senate File 496 to their stress load.

SF 496 requires a licensed teacher to inform administration (who will then inform parents) if a student wishes to be addressed by a name or pronoun that is different than the name or pronoun on the registration form. But student names—or pronouns—are part of the search for who they are, their coming of age, their identity.

“I go by Bernadette.” As embarrassing as that was for me to say time and time again, it wasn’t tied to gender identity such as the pronouns or nicknames used by our trans students.

Parental knowledge and acceptance all the time would be ideal. But that’s not realistic. Genuine fears of physical and/or emotional safety can deter students from telling their parents, and those teens may seek out a safe space at school. In fact, trusted school counselors or teachers might be the person they need to help them tell their parents.

Unfortunately, Governor Kim Reynolds and the GOP-controlled legislature have decided that public schools can no longer be trusted as the “village” we once were—at least not without government oversight, disguised in terms like parental choice.

I read Romeo and Juliet in high school. Juliet struggled with family expectations, too, and wanted her parents to let her be who she was and love whom she wanted. A name is important to the student to whom it belongs. It’s who he/she/they are. It should not be for the government to control. After all, as William Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Editor’s note: A federal lawsuit filed on behalf of eight LGBTQ students and the nonprofit Iowa Safe Schools is challenging Senate File 496, including the law’s forced outing provision.

About the Author(s)

Bernie Scolaro

  • Teens

    It’s amazing that teens survive adolescence. Great story. Very apropos. And well told.

  • spare us the rods

    appreciate these testimonials, unfortunately the kinds of Christians we are facing off against here don’t mind cruelty in the treatment of kids when it come to breaking them into being the kinds of people they want them to be.