I remember the scene clearly and I can pinpoint exactly where the conversation happened. There were two brothers, both older than me, who lived a few blocks from my childhood home. Let's call them Joe and Chris. Joe was the oldest. He was stocky and aloof, a near-adult to my seven year old eyes. Chris was younger, just a year or two older than me, and lean.
My childhood summers were spent on the playground of Cooper elementary school in Minneapolis. I did not usually play with Joe and Chris, though sometimes Joe let me join the football games he played with the other bigger kids, and sometimes Chris would join me on the playground. Mostly I played with kids closer to my age or made up obstacle courses to run by myself.
On that day Chris cemented himself into my memory. We had finished playing tag and were sitting on the concrete berm nestled into the little hill between the playground and 32nd street. I do not remember our conversation. I only remember one word, and it was aimed at me: idiot.
Take a moment and think back on your adolescence. I'm willing to bet you had a handful of moments, both good and bad, where you were given a name. It might have been a nickname, assigned by your friends. It might have been a username, self-assigned when you made a Twitter account (or in my case, AOL Instant Messenger). It might have been an insult that cut deep enough to stick. These are all names, as real as the name written on your birth certificate.
My first names came from my parents. When I born I became Tyler. Soon after, I became Tiger. As soon as I could speak, I unequivocally rejected my parents' attempts to use Ty.
The first name I got from outside the confines of my family still makes me smile. I went to latch-key at Bethlehem Covenant Church and an instructor named Andy was the coolest person in the world. We played floor hockey in the dimly lit basement dinner hall of the church, and one day I was the goalie. My memories of the game are hazy, but I did well enough that Andy dubbed me Sticky Fingers. I was six years old, and I wore that name like a badge of honor.
In high school I struggled to carve out an identity for myself. I was a good student and a mediocre athlete, but my names followed a different arc. In eighth grade I had decided to bleach my hair. My mom obliged, and I gained "frosted tips". I started putting gel in my hair to make it stick up, and AOL Instant Messenger user spikydood15 was born. I joined the swim team in my sophomore year, and when the team captains assigned everyone nicknames for their team attire, my sweatshirt read: gellin.
Out of college and in the business world, I realized that the assignment of a nickname was a mark of acceptance and welcome. I spent three years at my first professional job before I was accepted as T-Dog McSmitherton. Only a year passed at my current job before I became T-Bone and was part of the team.
Each of these names draws its significance from two sources: the namer and the named. When a teammate gave me a name, it was given and received with the weight of membership. When a superior gave me a name, it was a mark of praise and pride. When I picked a name, it was a statement of my evolving identity.
This evolution of identity, and my ability to determine its path, brings us back to the opening story.
Chris heaved word idiot at me like a boulder and I was unprepared to dodge it or catch it. The word landed on my chest and knocked me backward. I teetered, holding this word that was pressing into me and trying to become a name.
Whether it was luck, parental intuition, or a whisper from God, something inspired my dad to walk up just as Chris's insult hit the air.
My dad reached out and smashed the word to pieces with a venom I had never seen:
"My son is not an idiot."
My dad spoke with anger and authority. He was speaking at Chris but he was talking to me:
Do not even think about accepting that name. That is not your name.
Thank you dad.
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Copyright 2017 T.D. Smith