Guest post: My name is mine, not the government’s

By Guest Post

December 2, 2023

In the fall of 1972, I was a shy ninth-grader entering Mt. St. Ursula 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. Each time I heard “Mary” called out, I corrected the teacher and said that I go by “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 it, but I did feel that Bernie much more suited my personality; 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. 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 was as a school counselor at West High School in Sioux City.

Whether counseling in a private or a public school, high school students’ needs were the same: They were looking for acceptance for who they were and who they were becoming. As anxiety and depression have become less stigmatized in society, we have become more aware on the toll of societal, peer, and parental pressures on our youth’s mental health.

Iowa’s youth didn’t need us to add SF 496 to their stress load.  

SF496 “forces” 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, and their identity.

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

Parental knowledge and acceptance all the time would be ideal, but it’s not realistic. There can be real fears of physical and/or emotional safety that prevent students from telling their parents. Trusted school counselors or teachers might be whom they need to help them tell their parents.

Unfortunately, Gov. Kim Reynolds and the GOP Iowa Legislature have decided that public schools can no longer be trusted as the “village” we once were—at least, not without government oversight, which they ironically call “parental choice.”

I read Shakespeare’s “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 Shakespeare wrote, “That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Bernie Scolaro is a former member of the Sioux City Community School District school board. She can be reached by email here.

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