“Names” by BUILD Mentor Fred Dalzell

When I think back on my first year as a mentor with BUILD, it is the early challenges I remember most vividly. The initial pushback. The testing. The careful, fitful process of building trust with my students.

And in particular, I remember names. Pairs of names, actually. Two of them.

The first name was a wrong one.

On the first week after we had been assigned to our teams, I made a point of arriving early. This was my team, and I was gung-ho and eager to start strongly. “Good morning, Oneisha,” I said firmly as the first student arrived.

“That’s not my name!” Olaine retorted. Mortified, I realized my mistake. Of the two girls on my team, I’d chosen the wrong name.

In other circumstances the lapse might have been pardonable. She would have found some polite way of correcting my mistake. We would have probably laughed about it.

Not here. Not in this context. “You don’t even know my name,” she rebuked, tsk’ing with disapproval as she filed past me into the classroom.

I had miss-stepped. Badly. Shaken, I mustered a wan smile and an apology. She scarcely responded.

What could I do?

What else could I do but carry on. Show up the next week with a cheery and emphatic “Hi Olaine!” Again the next week, and the week after. And the week after that….

Trust was going to have to be earned.

It took more than a week or two. It took more than a month, in fact. But gradually, greeting by greeting Olaine’s wary look softened. Eventually we reached the point where my greeting became an implicit little joke between us, recalling and apologizing for my first mistake. Olaine got the joke. And slowly she accepted the apology.

So that was the first pair of names. Oneisha, and Olaine. I had to learn that second name, that real name. In a sense, I had to earn it.

The second pair of names were mine.

BUILD staff advised mentors to have students use our surnames. I was going to be “Mr. Dalzell.”

Except that I kept forgetting and referring to myself as “Fred.” So for the first few months the students weren’t sure which name to use.

It was Olaine who found the solution. In the middle of Winter, during a week that started roughly but that eventually became a productive session, she turned to me and said…. Well, to be honest, I don’t remember exactly what she said. But I do remember the name she used. She called me “Mr. Fred.”

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, that name became a second marker.

First I had to learn “Olaine.”

Then I had to earn “Mr. Fred.”

BUILD Mentor Fred Dalzell is an independent consultant, writer and business historian. He studied history at Yale as an undergraduate, then earned a Ph.D. at Harvard. The last 15 years he has been consulting with organizations on business history. He has written numerous books, including studies of Procter & Gamble, UPS, and other companies. He started volunteering with BUILD as a mentor last year. The Thursday afternoons he spends with his BUILD team which continues to be the most challenging and the most rewarding parts of his week.

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