When I started teaching school five years ago, I saw teachers correcting students all the time. Pull up those pants, spit out that gum, and it’s “yes, ma’am”. I thought I would never become one of those teachers. I was young and hip and worried about too many other things (like how to teach) to worry about these minor details. But I’ll have you know, it took me all of one month before I was nagging the students with the best of them. One time, I almost told a stranger to spit out their gum in Wal-Mart because I was so used to doing that in my classroom.
One thing that I rarely harped on was yes ma’am. I was brought up to say ma’am and sir – that’s how good Southern boys and girls address adults. It wasn’t that I was against this practice as a teacher – I just never insisted on the title. Many of my students would say it without the reminder. Their parents were clearly very dedicated to developing this habit. But honestly, I didn’t really notice when it was missing.
Now, things are different. I’m teaching in a different part of the country, and I really miss it. Kids don’t say it here. It’s a little sad. I guess it’s true that you don’t know a good thing until it’s gone.
I was reminded of all this while reading a post by Kristen Hansen Brakeman. Like many other women, hearing this word makes her feel that she is being called old. In her own words “You belong with the old and the barren now.” But I want to tell Kristen that it doesn’t have to be all about age! It is not a title only reserved for those with hip replacements and an AARP membership. Here’s an example:
One summer I worked at a golf course. Most of my customers were men in their 60s, and many of them called me ma’am. It was strange – I was only 19 – but also sweet. Clearly these men did not see me as someone who was their elder or superior. I was just a teenager who worked in the pro shop. I think the reason they said it was to be kind. The term showed respect, consideration, and just good manners – and is really no different from saying please and thank you. I have often used this terms with cashiers in a store or someone at the bank or anybody else I might encounter on a typical day. When I say ma’am in these situations (regardless of age), I am not saying ‘you belong in a nursing home’. I like to think the message is more like ‘you matter and therefore I will address with respect’.