When I said my last name, they heard ‘nothing’.
And so the nickname began.
My introduction was formal. Dressed in shirt and tie, I stood confidently in front of the classroom for the first time this school year. My ID badge, attached to a lanyard, dangled from my neck as my shoes tapped the ground to the quicker–than–normal beat of my heart. For some reason, a group of middle school students can create this sweaty nervousness in a teacher.
“Hello,” I said, “and Good Morning. My name is Mr. Nolting and I am excited to be here.”
I wasn’t their normal, everyday teacher. I was a substitute filling in for the first time.
“Did you say Mr. Nothing?”
“No, I didn’t. I said Mr. Nolting, but you can call me Mr. N if you’d like or if that’s easier to remember.”
“I like Mr. Nothing. Can we please call you Mr. Nothing?”
The energy in the class grew and the laughter was strong. I did a quick check of my self-esteem and it appeared as though being called Mr. Nothing didn’t damage me too badly. I continued on with the lesson plan.
For the next few weeks, while in class, the students were respectful and kind and they referred to me as Mr. Nolting or Mr. N. But, whenever they were in the hallways or I saw them outside the building, I often had the following interaction.
“Hello Mr. Nothing!”
“Hello! Did you say Mr. Nolting?”
“Yes. Mr. Nolting. Mr. N!”
They really thought they were hilarious and brave.
Fast forward a few weeks, a month or two into school, when I began to grow a beard courtesy of No Shave November (also, to keep my face warm on winter bike rides to and from school). My facial hair, often a conversation piece of it’s own (especially with middle school students that have no filter when talking to others), consists of dark brown hair on top of my head, super blonde eyebrows, and a ginger red beard. Why? I don’t know. I tell anybody that asks that it was “how I was created” and “I suppose God was feeling creative at the time”. It took me a long time to be okay with it, but over the years I’ve become pretty used to seeing it. It’s who I am. It’s me.
“Mr. Nothing, I mean Nolting, Mr. N, why do you have blonde eyebrows?” asked one of the students.
I prepared to answer in my normal fashion.
“And why such a red beard?” another student piped in. “Do you dye your hair?”
Again, I prepared to answer their questions with my typical response.
“Can we call you Mr. Rainbow Face?”
Son of a —–
“No, you can call me Mr. Nolting, though. Or Mr. N.”
I did my best to take their joking as complimentary. I remember middle school fairly well as a time when you showed affection by calling people names, stealing their stuff, punching them, and making fun of who they are. What a strange and awkward stage of life.
“Hey Mr. Rainbow Face, I wish I could grow a beard!”
“Yeah, Mr. Rainbow Face, your eyebrows are super cool.”
“Are you sure you don’t dye your hair Mr. Rainbow Face?”
Once again, I continued with class. After a brief check-in with my self esteem, I was still doing okay. In fact, they seemed to think it was cool that I learned to embrace who I am. Perhaps, I was accidentally teaching them a valuable lesson (especially during the formative years of puberty where you wander around wondering, ‘what weird thing is happening to me now?’). Embrace who you are.
At least they weren’t calling me Mr. Nothing anymore.
Fast forward again, to yesterday, where I found myself at the same school I’d been subbing in so many times before. A young student was having a difficult day and he made several negative choices, resulting in unacceptable behavior, causing me to interact with him in a more serious manner than normal.
“It’s time for you to go to the office,” I informed him. “I’m done allowing you to ruin this environment for the rest of class.”
As he walked out into the hallway, I dialed my classroom phone and called the office staff to inform them he was on his way.
“Yes, hello, this is Mr Nolting subbing in — ” click.
My troubled friend hung up the phone.
“Yes, sorry about that, this is — ” click.
He hung up the phone again and this time I did not redial – I left my desk and walked after him.
“Your behavior is unacceptable and that choice you just made was a very tough one for you,” I said. “Since you won’t let me call the office, I will escort you down there myself.”
I asked a staff member nearby to keep an eye on the students as they worked and I began to follow this kid down the hall. He walked at the same speed as me, about 30 feet ahead, occasionally turning around to say things like, “I’m not going to the office” and “you can’t make me” and “you’ll have to come and get me“. I responded with comments such as, “Yes you are going to the office” and “you need to stop right now” and “I’d be happy to“.
After one lap around the school, my young friend decided it was time to up the ante.
“I’m tired of this,” I informed him, “we’re done. You need to go to the office right now.”
“Alright Mr. Rainbow Face, why don’t you f*&%$#^ make me.”
I didn’t take that as a compliment.
“Okay” I said calmly. “I will.”
I bolted out of the sprinter’s block faster than I ever have before. His eyes grew about 5 sizes as he leapt into the air to turn and run. Unfortunately for him, he was like a cartoon character – his legs were spinning, but he wasn’t going anywhere – and I was getting very close. The student jumped into a hallway inlet next to a locked door and I placed both my arms across the entryway to create a fence.
“Now we wait” I said. “Now we wait.”
Campus Security, having noticed my two calls cut short (I’m assuming), joined us in the hallway and took over. I walked back towards my classroom as all the students ran away from the door and back to their seats. Apparently, they had been watching the end of this unfold. I can’t blame them. I wouldn’t have stayed at my desk either.
When I walked into the classroom, all the students were quiet. They were sitting in their seats, the best they ever had, pencils in hand, eyes on their work. You could hear each second of the clock as it ticked by. Tick…tick…tick. I returned to my desk to begin writing some notes when one boy slowly raised his hand and nervously asked, “uh, Mr. Nolting?”
“Yes,” I replied, still catching my breath, “what’s up?”
“Do you think we could call you Mr. Turbo from now on?”
I couldn’t help but smile, but my response stayed consistent.
“You can call me Mr. Nolting. Or Mr. N.”
As class wrapped up, I waited by the door, as I always do, to say goodbye to each student as they leave. They packed up their stuff, cleaned up around their desks, and headed for the hallways when the bell rang.
“Goodbye,” I said, “have a great rest of your day!”
“Goodbye Mr. Turbo,” each student replied. “You have a good day, too.”
And so the nickname began. I don’t think I’d mind if this one stuck.