I moved to the South just over a year ago. After spending the first 24 years of my life in the Midwest, it’s been quite an adjustment.
Growing up in the smallest town you can imagine, I was a pretty restless kid. Restless and frustrated and ready to get out. My family is third generation small town, so my whole self was decided for me based on my last name. I hated that. I felt like everyone already thought they knew me before they met me, because of my last name. Being the youngest child didn’t help that. I spent my whole childhood trying to take attention away from my older sister. In fact, I could write a whole series about my relationship with my sister, and I probably will one of these days. I don’t think I could really do my life stories justice without fleshing out that relationship.
But alas, today I’m talking about last names. Back to trying to outshine my sister. If I had been smart, I would’ve completely disregarded everything she did and wholeheartedly rebelled. But I’ve never been much of a rebel.
Instead, I tried to do what she did, but better. Note to any younger sisters out there: that doesn’t work. You can’t out-do someone at their own game. I guess it was hard for me to be different from her because my sister and I are already so much alike. Plus, she already had a pretty good life; I didn’t exactly want to do the complete opposite of her and have a bad life just so that I could be different. And I guess a part of me didn’t know how to create my own path or identity, because I already had my identity decided for me. Because of my last name.
My last name meant that I could do math. It meant that I couldn’t draw. It meant that I was trustworthy. It meant that I wasn’t creative. It meant that I was a good kid. It meant that I was not a threat. Honestly, I never even tried a lot of things because I already knew my sister wasn’t good at them, so that meant I wasn’t either. Or because I had a horrible art teacher all through grade school that refused to give me an A no matter how much effort I put into my work. The only B’s I ever got all through elementary and high school were in his art class. But my sister couldn’t draw either, so I wasn’t surprised at my own lack of artistic capability. I was a math person anyway. Creativity wasn’t my forte.
Then junior year came. And it was while sitting in my AP American Studies class that I realized I loved to write. The first day of class, we had a test over one of our summer readings: The Scarlet Letter. We had to analyze the scaffolding scenes and talk about what they represented in the story. When I first read the book, I had hardly noticed the scaffolding scenes. But that was the prompt and so I frantically searched through pages until I found some meaning. And I actually wrote a pretty damn good essay. While I had always done well in my English classes before then, it wasn’t until that moment that it dawned on me that I might actually be good at writing. That I LIKED writing. I started remembering all the stories I had written as a kid (the ones I had forgotten about once I realized that, according to my last name, I was not a writer). This same phenomenon happened later that year, when I took my first art class since junior high, and I began to recognize that maybe I wasn’t so horrible at that, either. Maybe I could do things even if my last name said otherwise.
I don’t imagine that very many people re-evaluate their entire existence at 17 years old (most people, myself included, haven’t really lived enough by then). And maybe I didn’t completely re-evaluate my existence, but I definitely took a step back to understand that I wasn’t limited by my last name. That I could choose any path I wanted, even if it was different than my sister’s. I began carving that new path by attending the college of my choice. And by discarding the acceptance letter to the college that my sister had attended.
I went to college two hours away from my hometown. Once I graduated, I moved back a little closer, though I was still over an hour away. I felt like I really “got away” after high school was over, but I guess I didn’t get all that far away. It wasn’t until I moved to the South that I REALLY felt far away. Even the summer I studied abroad in Spain seemed closer than the South feels sometimes. And for the first time in my life, I miss being known for my last name. I miss not having to explain myself to anyone, because everyone already knew who I was. And while I always hated the fact that I couldn’t drive too fast through town without someone calling my parents (because seriously, everyone knew everyone), I kinda wish that there was anybody down here that would recognize my car and me well enough to call my parents (I guess in this scenario they would also need to know my parents in order to make that call).
Last names are a big deal. They bring a reputation all their own, whether you’ve earned it or not. I don’t think I ever appreciated my last name until I didn’t have it anymore, nor did I appreciate being recognized for it until I went to a place where nobody recognized me.