My bland dorm room walls are practically bare, save for some family photos held up by clothespins, a glass terrarium my mother made me, and a canvas with letters scrawled out in loopy script. The letters spell out my name –Rebecca– and the canvas is displayed above my bed, not merely in case I one day entirely forget my identity amid one of my course-selection crises, but also because my name holds extreme personal significance. It represents all that I am and all I have identified with up until this point; as I consider it, a stream of memories floods my mind.
I smile as I recall the time my mother whispered in my ear “I chose ‘Rebecca’ because it means ‘Joined.’ You’ll be forever connected to me.” She was all too right; I call her on a daily basis, and the amount of ‘I love you to the moon and back’ texts we share is comparable to that of a newly established couple with the constant need to verbalize their own affection.
Following the string of moments, I’m transported to Hebrew school. Morah Fran tells me of the religious matriarch who shares my namesake and I find myself nodding. It’s only fitting that my name has a biblical history; religion has consistently been one of the most important factors in my life–in fact, it’s the only thing I’ve felt secure enough to write a Nass article about, up until this point.
Suddenly I’m inundated with flashing instants, times ‘Rebecca’ has transformed into versions of itself. “Becca” by close friends whose tongues tired of the extra syllable. “Becky” by those who knew me well enough to change the name I’d provided upon introduction, but not well enough to know I couldn’t stand this nickname. Silly extensions that I’d compiled into a book in the 8th grade, when my English teacher decided on a new one every single day (These ranged from “Beccapalooza” to “Beccannoying,” varying with my class participation). The brief period of “R.J.” (my middle name is Julia) after Over the Hedge came out in theatres, and the rejection of that same name when I’d decided it was far from feminine enough. “Reb” by the high school friends who meant the most to me and “Becs” by the camp ones. Long poems, scrawled out in my sister’s script, addressed fondly to “Rebex,” as she contemplated the complexities of our relationship with language far more lyrical than my own.
The flexibility of the name signifies the countless times I, too, have bent, becoming an altered version of myself that only barely resembled the original. The variations of my personality that I only occasionally identified with, the struggle to select one that best embodied the person I’d like to be, and the constant reversion back to the familiar.
As I floated among these memories in the corner of a classroom in Frist, someone asked, “Has anyone had ever gone by their last name?” I found myself shuddering, overcome with a new collection of memories, and no longer sure if I could claim my name ‘represents all that I am and all I have identified with up until this point.’
From grades 6-12, my last name had increasingly been an identifying factor utilized by my teachers. This is rather insignificant when I consider the times they used the name I’ve long gone by: Sobel. When referred to as such, I’ve always responded with pride and attempted to represent my family to the best of my ability. But Sobel isn’t the only thing that appeared on my class rosters. In fact, all my legal documents bear another name: Lew. This is the name of my biological father, with whom I have never identified, and in fact have attempted to avoid association with. This name brings back perhaps more vivid memories than those previously described, and certainly less pleasant ones. My mind is filled with images of hands: Fists pounding against the table as I’m equated with “filth” by a man who doesn’t really know me, and will never make a sincere effort to. Hands grasping my shirt as they forcefully pick me up and throw me across the room until I’ve smacked into the opposite wall. Fingers closing in around my neck in an effort to end my life, and those same fingers releasing to wave away my sister’s screams.
As my high school swim coach runs through the attendance list, he reads my medical clearance forms. “Sobel Lew” he calls out, and I raise my hand. My friends stare at me, slightly bewildered. When order dissolves, we head toward the shallow end to begin warm-ups and they inquire about my second last name. I inform them it must have been a typo, and I push myself harder than usual to finish the workout early. As I heave myself from the water, I approach my coach and ask him to alter the chart. The name ‘doesn’t represent me’ and I ‘don’t identify with it.’ The edit is penciled in, but never transferred to the typed version. The awkward roll calls persist for four years.
In my eighteenth year of life, I find myself reflecting on my identity, even if only for the sake of this campus publication. I finally realize that although I may not identify with ‘Lew,’ the statement “it doesn’t represent me” isn’t entirely valid either. It represents a part of me, albeit a part I chose not to emphasize. As an overwhelmingly optimistic person, I concede that my identity is dynamic and there are elements of myself that aren’t as rosy as “Rebecca” seeks to convey. But when I have the opportunity to choose how I present myself, I won’t select the elements that link me with unfortunate circumstances and unpleasant memories, regardless of their impact on me. On the other hand, I won’t always select “Rebecca Julia Sobel” either.
Recently, I’ve been considering a new name. One that brings vivid images of hands to mind. Hands grasping a lacrosse stick and launching the ball my way as I race across the front lawn. Hands attempting to squeeze into a baseball mitt and clumsily maneuvering after my mom mistakenly purchases a lefty glove as a gift. Hands embracing me tightly, fully engulfing me as I cry hysterically at my grandfather’s funeral. Hands absorbing the burden I sometimes attempt to bear, and placing it on the shoulders they extend from. Hands plugging ears when my mother and I shriek excitedly and throw my acceptance letter into the air, and hands providing a forceful high five when the pure bewilderment has subsided and the pride has surfaced. Hands helping me shove another t-shirt into my duffel, hands lugging my storage containers up the stairs, hands adjusting the setting on my twin-sized bed, the haven from which I write these words. Hands waving goodbye. Hands that I know will always be there to support me. The hands of my stepfather.
So when we meet, I’ll likely introduce my self as plain-old “Rebecca.” But if you’re curious, my full name is Rebecca Julia Sobel Solomon.