"That is not my name."
"Yeah, but can't I call you that?"
"No. You can call my mother that."
"Really? You have the same name as your mom? Like a junior?"
"Do women get to be juniors?"
"No. It wouldn't make sense because your mother's name is not usually her birth name, and they expect you to get married and take someone else's name anyway. Maybe if we didn't live in a patriarchal society."
"I called myself Sandra Junior for a while, when I was about seven."
"Yeah. I was such a feminist."
And then the conversation turned to feminism. Whether I was still a feminist, what it meant to be one these days, and whether a man could be one. But this is not about feminism. Because when I was seven and I wanted to be a junior, it wasn't because I was a feminist. I wanted to be a junior for the same reason that I took six weeks of gymnastics lessons and the same reason I declared at age ten that I did not want to go to Governor's School. It's the for that same reason that I still really can't stand it when someone calls me Sandy or Sondra or anything else besides my name.
And the reason is that I've been having an identity crisis for most of my life. Okay, not so much in the last ten years or so, but definitely for the first thirteen. I spent a lot of time trying to assert my individuality in an effort to differentiate myself from my five older siblings. I tried on different names, I went out for activities that none of the others did, and I shunned the things that they had done. I wanted to be Me, but the trouble was that I hadn't really figured out what that meant. I didn't actually care what it meant, as long as it was something other than whatever they were.
Pretty much every teacher I had growing up had previously taught some previous sibling or knew my parents. We have an uncommon last name and were big fish in a small, rural Western North Carolina pond. So my name on a roster conjured up certain expectations to a teacher. The worst were the ones who had taught the sister right before me, Carla. They would call me by her name, probably once or twice a month at least. My ninth grade French teacher once wrote me a hall pass with her name on it. I always had to play it off like it was no big deal, because I know they didn't mean to do it. It's a common, easy, and harmless mistake. I knew that to get bent out of shape over it would be unreasonable, so I laughed with them and told them it was fine, think nothing of it, it happens all the time! But it ate at me.
In the seventh grade, one of my teachers called out my sister's name on Awards Day to receive my award. Over the microphone. In front of the whole school and everyone's families. It was a long walk up to the front, blushing and fake laughing, wilting inside from humiliation. She corrected herself almost as soon as she had done it, and we shook hands as she handed me the certificate. She apologized, saying that she had seen Carla sitting in the audience and it had thrown her off, and I laughed it off, hoping that I was not letting on how close I was to tears (answer: very close).
You know, it's weird. I had forgotten all about that story until a few years ago, when I came across the event in an old journal. It seems like the act of forgetting would indicate that I had gotten over it. But when I did remember it, I was humiliated all over again. It's a funny story, right out of Are You There, God? It's me, Sandra. But I just couldn't laugh about it. I still can't. I've tried, and the most I can muster is a tired sigh. I can't remember the story without reliving it and all the emotions of my thirteen-year-old self. It wasn't the moment itself, it was what it represented to me.
The previous year, sixth grade for me and my sister's senior year of high school, was the worst one in my life (up until 2002...). She was doing all kinds of fun stuff, busy getting ready to leave home and go to college, winning everything in sight, being the golden child. And I was twelve. Do you remember twelve? It sucks. And I was acting twelve, too, so my grades were suffering and I fought with both my sister and my parents. I didn't even win the spelling bee. I wrote depressing letters to myself. I was convinced that I had finally differentiated myself from my siblings by becoming the black sheep. It wasn't so much that I was in the shadow as I was the shadow. It was an all-around rotten year, at least for an American kid from a loving, two-parent home.
And then, then! Seventh grade was awesome. It is not nice to say that my life got a million times better after my sister left, but I am here to say that it did. Exactly one million times better. I started playing sports and everyone thought I was good at it because I could reach higher. I was in a better class, and I had more friends. I still did not win the spelling bee, but I did win the geography bee. I stopped rebelling against my parents for the sake of it, I stopped being the shadow. These things are not all because my sister left. But you have to admit that the timing was suspicious.
And then Awards Day happened. It was otherwise a glorious day for me. I was wearing a pretty new dress, not a hand-me-down, that showed off the little curves I had finally acquired, and my own name had already been called out so many times that the eighth graders from the wrong side of the tracks had built a drinking game around it. But then Carla's name was called out, and I wondered if I would ever be anything more than just someone's else's sister.
By the time I went to college, I had had five more years of seventh grade style success. People still called me by someone else's name every once in a while, but it didn't bother me so much. When I laughed it off, it was more genuine. Somewhere in there, I found the line where I existed - the place where I was both an individual and a part of my own family. I had a niche in my family that was defined by the person I was rather than by birth order. And then when I left the small pond for college, I realized that the rest of the world did not care about my family. Nobody knew who I was, no one expected me to do anything, no one heard my last name or saw my nose and made immediate assumptions about me. Whatever I did was mine. It was freeing. And it made me appreciate my family.
I love my family. I got very, very (very, very, very) lucky when I was born into it. When I spend time with them, I am comforted by how alike we are. Finally, someone who gets it! The real world constantly reminds me that most everyone else grew up in a different kind of home. The last ten years has been a series of revelations for me, where I find one thing after another that I previously thought was universal, but turns out to be actually more specific to our home. I was struggling so hard to be an individual within my family that I didn't notice that just being born into this family sort of made an individual out of me.
And you know what? My mom thinks that I'm weird. I secretly like it.