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“This is so unfair!” I whined, with my signature “feel sorry for me” expression.
“It’s your first day of second grade. You should be excited,” my mother replied. “Plus, you can finally walk to school since it’s only next door.”
Literally, my school was next door. I could run home to use the restroom and return to my math class in five minutes. I was only eight and even I knew this wasn’t normal.
“I hate walking. This sucks,” I continued to whine as my mom continued to ignoring my complaints. She gave me lunch money and I was on my way to school.
I walked into the Mrs. Enright’s class only to witness a scene of utter chaos. There were loud-mouthed girls with tank tops and pink book bags and unfriendly boys with Pokemon cards and a little too much attitude.
This is a disaster, I thought to myself as I found a seat in the back of the classroom, away from the rest of second-graders. I sat in silence and read my newest Goosebumps book, praying that nobody would approach me. Apparently, my prayers were futile.
“Hi, I’m Trevor,” said a tall, unruly boy with an oversized T-shirt and untied shoelaces. “Are you new?”
He gave me a puzzled look, “So why are you sitting here alone?”
“I’m trying to read,” I said as nicely as I could, yet with a tone of irritation.
“Fine,” he gave up and walked back to a group of boys.
Thankful that the annoying boy left me alone, I decided then that I didn’t need to answer to any of these people and that I had the right to say as much or as little as I wanted to. So when Mrs. Enright walked in, ready to begin a new school year of new second-graders, I was convinced that I could go through the entire year under the radar and unnoticed. Unfortunately, for some odd and bewildering reason, Mrs. Enright decided that she would take attendance by having each student stand up and state their names and their age. I was absolutely mortified. Not only was I strongly opposed to speaking in front of the class, but I wasn’t exactly thrilled about announcing my legal last name, Wondwassen, to the class either.
I realized at a very early age that the name Yonas Michael Wondwassen was not an ordinary American name. And while I wasn’t ashamed of it, I just didn’t like saying my full name out loud, since that usually required repeating it, spelling it out, and repeating it again. And, to be honest, the word “wondwassen” sounded more like an exotic fish to me than a surname. Nonetheless, I respected my parents’ wishes to accept the name and consistently write it on all of my tests, forms, and legal documents. But when Mrs. Enright called on me that gloomy Monday morning and asked me to stand up, I’d reached my breaking point. I got up and took a deep breath.
“My name is Yonas and I’m eight years old,” I stated with a grimace.
Mrs. Enright raised her eyebrows and I shrugged my shoulders nervously.
“What’s your full name?” she inquired.
“My full name?”
“My name is Yonas.”
The entire class was shocked by my refusal to cooperate with the teacher. A few of the girls chuckled and I looked over to see Trevor shaking his head.
“Please give me your first and last name,” Mrs. Enright asked patiently.
At this point, any normal person would give in and just tell their teacher their last time. In a way, this became a turning point in my life, the point where something in my childhood development went terribly wrong. In retrospect, that day foreshadowed the many awkward moments and acts of insanity that were to come.
“I don’t know it,” I said quietly.
“You don’t know your last name?”
“It’s not that I don’t know it at all. I just don’t know how to pronounce it correctly,” I tried to rationalize, as Mrs. Enright and my classmates listened in disbelief.
“Can you spell your last name?”
“No, I really never use it.”
Dumbfounded, my teacher tore a sticky note from her desk and wrote a memo addressed to my parents. She placed it in my agenda and told me to give it to them that afternoon.
“Make sure that they get this, okay?” Mrs. Enright told me, with a tone of concern.
Sure enough, the name amnesia incident didn’t exactly help with my mission to go under the radar. By lunch time, everyone was talking about the boy who didn’t know his last name.
One girl in particular, Crystal, was especially interested in this and got her entire entourage of second-grade girls in pink to talk with me at recess.
“So you just don’t know your own last name?”
“No, I really don’t. My family doesn’t really believe in it.”
“Oh, my God,” Crystal gasped. “But you do have one, right?”
“Duh,” I said condescendingly. “I just don’t know how to say it.”
“What did Mrs. Enright’s note to your parents say?” one of Crystal’s friends asked.
“It said ‘Please teach your son how to say and spell his last name for class.’”
“So what are you going to do now?” Crystal asked, as if my name amnesia incident was the most interesting story she’d ever heard in her nine years of existence.
“I’ll just find out what my last name is after school. No big deal.”
That afternoon, I came home and promptly tore Mrs. Enright’s note into pieces, hiding it from my parents. It was clear that I was going to have to say my full name in front of the entire class the next day. Distressed, I contemplated the alternatives to the situation.
I can ask my parents if I can switch schools and threaten to run away if they say no, I thought to myself, but didn’t even have the energy to face my parents at that point. It was time to give in and face the music. I spent the evening practicing how to say my name in the mirror. I tried to make it sound cooler than it was, adding accents and saying it in a different pitch, but nothing seemed to work.
The next day came quicker than I’d expected and I felt a sickness in my stomach, but I tried to throw off my parents by keeping quiet. Unfortunately, my mother saw right through me.
“Are you okay?” my mom asked me that morning.
“Yeah, why are you asking that? Do I not look okay?” I replied.
“It was just a question,” she said, taken aback. “But is there anything I should know?”
“No,” I chirped, a little too quickly. “Why, what did you hear? Whatever she said, it’s not true.”
“Who is ‘she’? What are you talking about?” my mother asked, confused.
“Lydia,” I replied, strategically redirecting the focus to my five-year-old sister. “I always take the blame for everything she does.”
“Don’t try to blame everything on Lydia. Just because she made you mad doesn’t mean you had to throw the Bop-It through the window,” she scolded, which pulled me even deeper into a bad mood. I was once again reminded of my one-month grounding for throwing that crappy gizmo from Toys R Us through the window, which left a menacing hole in the glass.
As I walked into Mrs. Enright’s classroom that day, my stomach turned and my hands clenched into tight fists. The anxiety was unbearable. From my point-of-view, the entire ordeal was not my fault. I felt like there were certain rights that I was entitled to as an American and one of them was the freedom to not say my name when I didn’t want to. Of course, in retrospect, this sounds ridiculous, but at the time my logic was somewhat logical.
“Good morning, Yonas,” Mrs. Enright smiled at me. “How are you today?”
“Fine,” I grinned, desperately trying to conceal my resentment.
“Did you talk with your parents?”
“About that ...,” I said in a softer tone, so that nobody else could hear. “My last name is Wondwassen. Wond. Wassen. W-O-N-D-W-A-S-S-E-N. Wondwassen. Okay?”
“Great, now can you say that when we take roll in front of the class?”
“Do I have to?” I grumbled. She nodded sternly and I decided not to make another scene.
As I sat down, ironically right next to Trevor, Mrs. Enright began her roll call and I rolled my eyes in disgust, silently reading my new book to myself.
“What’s your problem?” Trevor asked me, as if I was the one with the problem.
So, naturally, I responded with, “What’s your problem?”
That generated a few laughs from the other kids sitting around us. I realized that the conversation was not going too well for me and decided to look back down at my book. But Trevor wasn’t done just yet.
“You know, if you just stopped being such a freak, people would actually like you.”
“I’m not talking to you,” I snapped back.
Unbeknownst to me, as my little quarrel with Trevor was going on, the roll call made its way down to through the alphabet and got to “W.” Just as my newest enemy was about to attack, Mrs. Enright called on me. I promptly stood up, clenched my teeth, and took a deep breath.
“My name is Yonas Michael Wondwassen,” I stated and, before taking my seat, added, “It’s sort of like Watson, with a ‘wand’ added before it. That’s all.”
One year later, I came back to school for my first week of third grade. The name amnesia incident was behind me, as long as nobody brought it up, and I was determined to make a fresh start at elementary school. As I walked into the cafeteria that day, I found a group of third-graders I didn’t recognize and started talking with them.
“Hey, I’m Yonas. Is anyone sitting here?” I asked, before setting myself a place at the table. They seemed to be a solid group of kids, until the conversation took a twisted turn.
“Hey, remember that one kid who wouldn’t say his name in class?” one of them asked the group.
I froze in place. I just knew this was bound to become a very uncomfortable situation.
But then another one chimed in, “Oh, yeah, I heard they tried to make him say his name in class so he pulled out of school!”
It was then that I realized how poor the short-term memory of a third-grader was. They had no idea who they were talking about. It was an exhilarating feeling to finally be under the radar again.
“What about you, Yonas?” the girl next me asked. “Do you remember him?”
“Yeah, he was weird,” I laughed. “Maybe if he wasn’t such a freak, people would have actually liked him!”