I’ve been called a variety of names in my life—Katie, Kate, Roly-poly, Stinky, Peanut, Dingleberry (that last one having been bequeathed by a particularly ornery brother-in-law)—but I don’t think I’ve ever known a name to impact my personal identity quite as much as my present one: Mrs. Schuermann.
I first noticed its import when teaching college-level music history courses to omniscient twenty-somethings.
I had introduced myself to the students as Professor Schuermann, not-so-subtly hinting at how I wanted to be addressed, and you had better believe my already over-sized ego grew and grew under my title’s golden glow. Yet, even my professional name failed me in the end.
“Professor Schuermann?” Jake, a particularly smart and attentive young man stayed late after class one night. “Would you like me to walk you to your car?”
I thought nothing of it at the time. It seemed like a harmless enough gesture. Chivalry at its best, in fact, but it only took me three steps into the conversation before I realized my mistake.
“My wife and I are having problems,” Jake confided as he walked, looking at me in that way which makes women blush. “The music you played in class today—the Beethoven—well, it really got to me. I know you understand.”
I did understand, so much so that I carefully monitored my posture, my facial expression, and my tone of voice every time I addressed Jake for the remainder of the semester. I also mentally flogged myself for not having asked the class to call me Mrs. Schuermann from the start. If I had, then at least Jake and every other moon-eyed boy would have been reminded of my happily married status every time someone spoke my name. I made a vow from that moment on to forgo my silly professorship pride and stamp “Mrs.” on every syllabus I distributed from there on out.
‘Miss’ Versus Mrs.
When my husband and I moved south of the Mason-Dixon line, everyone—men, women, pastors, mothers, children, teachers, and store clerks alike—called me Miss Katie. At first, my married self chaffed under the misnomer, but I tried to let it go. It seemed to be a cultural trend in the South, after all, a way of simultaneously communicating affection and respect without the formality of using a surname.
But it didn’t take me long to notice that other women in our community were called by their first names only, or, when addressed by business associates and children, as Mrs. Somebody. It confused me to be classified and set apart in such a way. Was I less or more than these women? Did my Yankee status lower me to sub-resident in the eyes of my southern neighbors? Was I too young to be—
Then, with a jolt, I realized the difference.
Those other women were married just like me, but their marriages bore the laureate of authenticity: children. My husband and I, although married for over a decade, were barren of children, and so I was just Miss Katie to my neighbors: a childless married woman.
Suddenly, the South’s faulty label seemed no longer charming. It was a cruel, sharp stab from a pointy shaft of shame, and no amount of red velvet cake could make it any better.
I immediately became evangelical about the whole thing, fighting the false doctrine of defective designation with everything I had. I polished my diamond ring; I trumpeted my wedding anniversary on Facebook; I hung on my husband’s arm in public; I even began reintroducing myself to people as Mrs. Schuermann. I suppose I seemed obstinate, maybe even rude, to some of my neighbors, but a wife by any other name simply doesn’t smell as sweet.
Fast forward to today, and all you have to do is sift through a few pieces of my mail to notice that magazines, political organizations, and solicitors insist on addressing me as Ms. Schuermann. I suppose I could let this one go—after all, “Ms.” is neither insulting nor misleading but a socially appropriate title for any woman regardless of her marital status—but the point is that it’s not the best prefix for me. It is a title of mystery. It does not tell you who I am. It only tells you what I am.
How politically correct of society! And how cowardly.
So I hope you will forgive me for insisting on this minor detail, but I am so much more than just a woman or a barren lady or a music teacher. I am also Michael’s wife.
You may call me Mrs. Schuermann.