By Sarahbeth Caplin
First day of fourth grade: the teacher takes attendance with strict efficiency. Since my last name begins with C, I am the fifth student called. “Sarah Caplin?” I raise my hand. By the time she gets to the end of the list, it is apparent that Sarah is the female name of choice: there are four Sarahs in our class of a dozen students, which Mrs. F thinks is hilarious. She places us all at the same table: Sarah K, Sarah M, Sarah W, and myself. It was not the first time I had to be differentiated by my last initial, and it wouldn’t be the last.
And dammit, I was already tired of it.
My parents told me, “We just liked the name; we had no idea it was so popular.” It never occurred to them that giving me a name from the Bible with timeless appeal (why else do so many women have it?) and no pronunciation problems in the English-speaking world would be such a burden to me. As an adult introvert, I’m okay blending in, but Childhood Me was the opposite. How could I stand out with a classic baby name shared by so many?
Life was so unfair.
The older I got, the more I accepted Sarah’s popularity. But the name never felt right. In Hebrew, Sarah means “princess,” which clashed with the “Jewish American Princess” stereotype I sought to avoid all my life. I never felt that “Sarah” described my identity or personality. Names give first impressions before our faces do – on job applications, on the spines of library books. What we call ourselves matters.
Even if I did learn to love my name, it’s disheartening to hear “Ugh, another one!” when meeting someone new. I envied the people whose names invoked responses like, “Oh, that’s lovely. What does it mean/where is it from?”
Of course, unique names have issues of their own. If you don’t like your name, you have two options: come up with a nickname, or go to court and change it.
I joked most of my life about legally changing my name. Senior year of college, I asked my parents for my birth certificate so I could bring it to court. Since I was twenty-two, their permission was not required. But they were concerned about what I would replace Sarah with.
Naming yourself, if you have the opportunity to do so, is a serious challenge. I felt I understood the plight of expectant parents in choosing the right moniker, only I wouldn’t have to worry about a little person hating me for my choice, since I was choosing for myself.
While the idea of changing one’s name is intriguing, there are practical reasons why most people don’t. By the time you are old enough to do so, you’re fairly used to being addressed by that name – as is everyone who ever knew you. How do you train yourself to respond to something different? Would my reflexes always kick in upon hearing my birth name?
For most of my life, I rarely turned around when “Sarah!” was called, unless my last name was also attached or I recognized the voice. In a school cafeteria, shopping mall, or any place where crowds gather, yelling out a common name causes multiple people to turn around at once. Nine times out of ten, the Sarah being called wasn’t me.
Still, the thought of training myself to respond to something else was challenging. I could have gone with something completely different. Sometimes I wish I had. A few of my choices were Eliza, Emilia, and Joan (after my favorite saint, Joan of Arc). In the end, I went with something technically different, but not so much that friends and family wouldn’t be able to catch on. I picked a combination of my given names, Sarah Elizabeth: Sarahbeth.
It didn’t take long for me to enter a different world of Name Frustration. When giving my name by phone, I gave the spiel “It’s Sarahbeth, one word, with an h, no space, no hyphen, lower-case b…” Not surprisingly, there were people who just couldn’t figure it out. To this day, I receive junk mail addressed to Sarabeth, Sarah–Beth, and SaraBeth. Not all my IDs match. I had a boss who called me Marybeth.
I guess I didn’t think this through very well, but to me it was simple. All I did was take two common names and put them together. I still end up having to spell it out or write it down.
To make my story more interesting, I changed my name again a few years later: surname. I married a man with the last name Stoneburner; another name made of two ordinary words smooshed together. Yes, I am legally Sarahbeth Stoneburner, often mistaken for Sarah–Beth Stone-Burner or Sarah Beth Stone Burner. I now receive mail addressed to Sarah Burner and Beth Stone. What can I say: I asked for this struggle, didn’t I?
Before getting married, I worked a part-time job in childcare, where I met many adorable kids whose parents saddled them with unfortunate monikers. Some of these children were named for objects, places, and TV characters that would inspire all kinds of cruel jokes. Others were given common names with unintelligible spellings. The issues with my name paled in comparison to these little people who would spend their entire lives spelling and respelling their names, putting up with teasing, and being denied job interviews because of who they are on paper. I had to wonder about the parents who thought this was a good idea; who acted insulted that I could not read the mishmash of consonants on their child’s nametag that was apparently pronounced “Jennifer.”
Being “another Sarah” suddenly didn’t seem so bad.
Before we started dating, my husband asked if he could call me Beth. “Sarahbeth is too long,” he protested.
I answered “Sure,” convinced it didn’t matter what he called me, since at the time I assumed we were “just friends.”
Eventually it stuck. Beth, to me, is a name that conjures an image of a dark-haired book nerd with glasses, which is what I happen to be. It’s a name with an element of mystery – is it short for Elizabeth, Bethany? I have yet to meet a Beth who shares my legal first name. So it is unique still, in a way. Best of all, Beth is a name that is impossible to screw up, and that’s no small thing.
Sarahbeth Caplin has a BA degree in English Literature from Kent State University, and is currently at work on a master’s in creative nonfiction at Colorado State. Her memoir, Confessions of a Prodigal Daughter, ranked #1 in Amazon’s top 100 personal growth books in 2015. Her work has appeared in xoJane, Feminine Collective, and Christians for Biblical Equality. Follow her blog at www.sbethcaplin.com or on Twitter @SbethCaplin.
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