Nothing a good name tag can't fix
So that readers will understand the basis of the suggestion I'm about to make, I need to explain some facts about one of my major behavior quirks. Over the years I've developed a habit of trying to establish a personal connection with anyone I happen to encounter while meandering around in the everyday world.
I enjoy talking with store clerks, bank tellers, gas station attendants, shoppers who can't find the condiment aisle at the supermarket, and everyone else who's willing to initiate a conversation.
This pattern, like many other elements in my life, was inspired by military history. During World War II, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was serving with the 1st Infantry Division in North Africa. One night, standing beside a road while a convoy of troops passed by, Roosevelt turned to Gen. Omar Bradley and said, "Brad, I'll bet I've talked to every man in this division. They'd know my voice whether they could see me or not. Listen!"
As Bradley explained in his memoir, "A Soldier's Story," Roosevelt then called into the darkness, "Hey, what outfit is that?" And immedately a voice from the road replied, "Company C of the 18th Infantry, General Roosevelt."
The general set a high standard, and I'm trying to top it. He only had to meet every guy in his division. I believe it might be possible to meet everyone in the USA if I could just free up enough time each day. Having two dogs that need lots of walking puts a giant crimp in this goal.
I think about TR Jr. a lot these days because his up-close-and-personal approach to his troops seems like the perfect starting point for creating a stronger, safer post-9/11 society. Treating one another like strangers doesn't build unity; it just reinforces feelings of suspicion. But I also realize that a lot of Americans are not like me or General Roosevelt. This country has a long tradition of allowing people to remain anonymous or reinvent themselves to any degree they please.
So here's a hypothetical question to consider next time you're standing at a busy intersection: Would you rather have your face captured on a surveillance camera or wear a nametag that everyone around you can read? What is more worrisome, losing privacy to the government or to your fellow citizens?
I know that having every person wear an identification badge while they're walking around in public is totally impractical and would make all of us feel we're attending a huge, endless business convention, but the concept might be useful on a much smaller scale, so here is a serious suggestion: nametags for all students at primary and secondary schools. It seems like a simple step in the direction of community spirit that educators are constantly trying to encourage.
Most schools now require all visitors to sign in and wear an ID sticker, so expanding the practice wouldn't be a huge shock. No need for a big ongoing campaign, either. One effort per month would be fine, Nametag Friday, just to make the point that everyone has an identity even if they don't look or dress the way you do.
I make no claims that this idea will cause better test scores or other academic improvments. All I'm trying to do is start some conversations. And knowing somebody's name seems like a good reason to say "hello."
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.