“Miss Da–er, Mrs. Gaster?”
It’s the merry refrain of the week, echoing from junior after eager junior, accompanied by a waving hand and a pressing question. Unlike their senior counterparts, who use my new name out of self-conscious cuteness, the juniors are trying to get something done. They have questions–now, the last week of the semester, more than ever–and need answers. And to get answers, they feel it imperative to correctly address their teacher, whose name happened to change a few weeks back.
Young or new teachers frequently have a conflicted relationship with their own last names. It makes us feel old or dull, hearing a “Miss” or a “Mr.” attached to our less-used surnames. Sometimes, it sounds unbearably false or pretentious, attaching authority that we feel too inexperienced to deserve. I remember many times feeling like I was “playing school” in my own classroom, even after finishing student teaching, the prefix before my name just an echo from childhood games.
But perhaps because at almost-21 I was possibly too young when I started teaching, I quickly got over it, embracing my last name and the respect that went with it. My advice: If you’re afraid of your last name, teach ninth grade in a public high school. Heard five hundred times a day, in tones that vary from jubilation to loathing, even the sternest title loses its austerity, blending seamlessly into the role. To me, “Miss Dahlstrom,” means “teacher,” a happy personal synonym born out of vocation and relationship. After eight years, this is as much who I am as the colloquial Kristi of summers and after-school hours.
Which is why I smile when my students teasingly complain about having to call me something new halfway through the school year. “This is a hard adjustment for you?” I laugh. “What about me?”
Still, every half-Dahlstrom, half-Gaster address is a reminder, to me and to them, of a few important things. They repeat my new name purposefully–the juniors with exaggerated solemnity and the seniors with hyperbolic glee–because they’re still celebrating with us. Far from clandestinely leaving the continent and coming back–surprise!–married, our students have been anticipating this for months with us, counting down the days and then logging in, from all over the world and at all hours, to watch our wedding live. They’re thrilled to see us back here together, and to get to be the first to call me “Mrs. Gaster.” It’s an honor to hear, to be reminded by their cheerful stumbling that they’re paying attention to our lives.
It’s this attention, really, that I hear most in my new name on my students’ lips. Since that Christmas Banquet two years ago, Timmy’s and my relationship has unfolded always within the watchful view of a few hundred teenagers. For both of us, this was always an extension of how we were already living our lives, making our decisions, interactions and relationships visible to young people who, far from the older siblings and youth leaders who occupy these roles elsewhere, are looking for models of Christ-centered young adulthood. As we’d been available single, so we remained while dating, fielding the questions and confidences opened up by this new chapter in our lives.
As we return to Kandern, we realize that our marriage continues in this vein, that we have the opportunity to be either hospitable or hermetic in our new little house. We choose hospitality, aware that at every step of the way we’ll need to rely on Christ for the love that binds us together and pours out to those around us. Living in a community eager to support and mentor us as a couple, surrounded by those who will hold us accountable to honoring Christ with our marriage, we are fortunate indeed.
And so, in Mrs. Gaster, I hear not just the “teacher who was Miss Dahlstrom,” though I’m tempted sometimes to listen for it, that echo of a younger self. In this new name, I’m reminded with each repetition that I’m more than a teacher here, that our home belongs to God as much as my classroom ever has. Though sharing the mysteries of written words remains so delightful I’d do it for free, in our marriage, we have the opportunity to “share life” with those around us, as my father exhorted us to do on our wedding day.
It’s not a new lesson–Timmy and I, along with dozens of our friends and colleagues here in Kandern, have lived deeply in this community for years now–but it’s a road we walk together now, one name and one home to share. Pray for us as we begin this journey of sharing life together, turning our gaze first toward our foundation in Christ, as we seek to serve and love each other and those around us.