“It’s Ms., Jason.”
“Miss Matouk?” he began again, sarcastically.
“It’s November, Jason, please do me the courtesy of saying my name correctly.”
Her voice grew tense as the class of twelve high school juniors sat fidgeting, tittering quietly, or watching the changing leaves outside.
“Does anyone know what Ms. means?
Monica Matouk was my favorite teacher. She was young, smart, casually elegant, and intense. She made me love poetry, and I was even beginning to understand Othello, which we had just begun. She sat forward in her heavy, wooden chair, challenging someone to answer. No one did. We didn’t understand the question. It was my chance.
“Ummm, my mom says that a ‘Mrs.’ is married, a ‘Miss’ isn’t married but wants to be, and a ‘Ms.’ isn’t married and isn’t looking.”
I could tell immediately this was not the right answer. She struggled to maintain her composure in the uncomfortable silence.
“That is a very common misconception,” she said finally. My heart fell. I wrong, and I had insulted Ms. Matouk, whose name I had always been careful to pronounce correctly.
“Your mother is right, to an extent, Melissa.” She said this kindly, noting the embarrassment glowing hot on my cheeks. “When I talk about Mr. Austin or Mr. Wong, what do you know about them?”
Silence, again. I wasn’t climbing back out on that limb.
“You know they’re men. You don’t know if they’re married or unmarried, hoping to marry, gay or straight. ‘Ms.’ is the same for women.” Jason giggled at the word “gay,” but went silent with a look from Ms. Matouk. “Who I am doesn’t depend on what relationship I have or don’t have with a man,” she continued. “I am a professional. I am a woman. I am Ms. Matouk.”
This was incendiary stuff. I grew up in a small town, the daughter of loving, successful, conservative parents. My father owned a pharmacy, and my mother kept our home. She always told me I could be whatever I wanted to be, but I wondered if she would approve of my being a “Ms.” Her identity, her sister’s identity, her mother’s and grandmothers’ identities had all been based almost entirely on the men in their lives. So had mine, really: Fred’s oldest, George’s granddaughter, Tom’s girlfriend. Who was I?
“Will this be on the exam?” asked Gretchen.
With that, we returned to Othello. It’s still my favorite Shakespeare these many years later in my own classroom full of fleetingly attentive high school students. Othello is a dupe; Desdemona is a dishrag; Iago is just plain evil. But Emilia—sharp, witty, take-no-prisoners Emilia—there’s a ‘Ms.’ I can get behind.
I believe Ms. Matouk. I believe that I can be a ‘Ms.’ and a mommy, a professional and a wife, and I am. I believe that my two young daughters will grow up stronger knowing that they can be whatever they want to be, and they will be judged on their merits, not their men.
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