When I was a freshman in high school, I nearly tripped as I made my way to my seat in English class. “What are you, spastic?” the teacher said. She thought this was funny, as did some of my classmates. From then on, they called me “Spaz.”

Since this is National No Name Calling Week, I just thought I’d mention this.

Can you imagine this happening today? The teacher would lose her job. My contemporaries would be called in and interrogated. I would undergo therapy. The school staff would be required to reflect on its attitudes and the school climate. Sensitivity training would become routine throughout the school district.

Perhaps these things should have been done. But even though Americans were becoming more sensitive about social issues in the 1970s, such name-calling would have been attributed to the old adage that “kids will be kids.”

Somehow, I was not scarred by this experience. I had plenty of friends, participated in extracurricular activities and was elected a representative to the student council. But, still, part of me wonders why the adults in the school let this go on.

I, of course, did not complain. That would have made me a pariah. I didn’t think of myself as especially clumsy, so I didn’t take the moniker to heart. It was a joke, wasn’t it? The boys — it was always boys — would use it thus: “Hey, Spaz, you going to eat those french fries?”


Now, I had a bad case of cystic acne, so if they had chosen to call me “Spotty” or worse, I probably would have had a meltdown and refused to go to school.

I look back at my high school years with fondness, but it wasn’t easy. Though I didn’t let Spaz define me, it was annoying and demeaning. Why did I have to put up with it, I wondered.

Besides, I had other problems. I didn’t want to be thought of as a nerd, so I hid my current reading (I always had to have a book with me) in my school bag. Yes, people would have commented: “What are you reading that for?”

I was afraid to use certain bathrooms because they were always filled with tough girls smoking cigarettes. One time I was desperate and went in, only to hear toilets flushing madly. A face poked out of a stall. “Oh, we thought you were a teacher.” Really? I was 5 feet tall, weighed 100 pounds and was wearing bell bottoms. It must have been that nerd vibe I had going.

My mother was very concerned about how the world perceived her, and, in turn, her daughters. My father couldn’t care less. I was conflicted. I felt I shouldn’t have to care — but I did.

Acne ran on my father’s side, but when all the home remedies Dad had used in the 1940s failed to help me, my parents sent me to a dermatologist. There, in the waiting room, was one of my tormentors. As I stood at the reception desk, he came up behind me and said, “Hey, Spaz, what’s up?” A nurse, in full nurse regalia and holding a clipboard, came into the office at that very moment.


“Young man,” she said, “stop that right now and go back to your seat!”

I was vindicated. I was right to feel disturbed by my nickname. Imagine that!

Young people today have the opposite problem. Some have become so sensitive about the slightest perceived slur against their race, sexual orientation, gender identity and/or body image that some comedians refuse to play college campuses anymore.

This is as wrongheaded as my youthful naivete. As the old adage goes, “It’s easier to put on slippers than to carpet the whole world.” We all have to choose our fights. We can’t expect the world to be a soft and comfortable place for all of us all the time.

Name-calling is wrong. It can be dangerous. It is often the start of a slippery slope to crisis. Look at how some of our presidential candidates want to pit “us” against “them.”

We must confront injustice wherever we see it. We should demand an end to name-calling. Honestly, though, I’m not optimistic. The real world can be a painful place. My best advice: Put on your slippers, but be ready for anything.

Augusta columnist Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at [email protected]

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