October 28, 2009

By Any Other Name

I wasn’t always Barbara. The name was too grown-up for a baby, my parents and siblings thought, and so they called me Susie.

I was perfectly happy being Susie. Until I started kindergarten, where the teacher said that my real name was Barbara. "In school," she said, "we use real names." Right off the bat I was a stranger to myself, answering to a name that, while technically mine, I had never claimed, and it was in was in kindergarten that I learned that Barbara means "stranger."

I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor, my folded hands pressing my dress into the hollow of my lap like a good girl, as the teacher told us the meaning of our names: "Stranger" didn’t sound too bad, but something changed when she told the class that Barbara also means "barbarian." Although I was surrounded by other children, it felt as if I were suddenly alone, as if everyone else had moved back and left me in the middle of a large open space ringed by laughing, pointing faces. These were the same kids who ate paste and couldn’t be trusted with pointy scissors, and yet their laughter made me feel that I was, in fact, a stranger and outsider. As if not even following all the rules would protect me from being different. It was too late, I thought, to go back to being Susie. I would have to be Barbara for the rest of my life.