I must agree to disagree with Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when she claims that something as simple as a name could not have the power to change the inner essence of a rose or a person. Names are not just simple titles we give to one thing to distinguish it from another thing- names are incredibly important, and I would go so far as to argue that even though we have the power to change our names, names can shape us just as much as we shape them. I know mine did that for me.
The summer before my freshman year, I gave myself a two week break from the taxing job of idleness to be in a production of The Pirates of Penzance. When I got there, I felt a bit out of water. It didn’t help that a lot of the kids already knew each other, and it didn’t help that I had a rather deluded sense of optimism about my acting abilities. To counteract this sense of isolation, I decided I would temporarily change an essential part of myself- my name.
My great-grandfather was a man named Patrick Campbell from Donegal, Ireland. He died less than a year before I was born, so my dad decided to pay tribute to Patrick Campbell by naming his first child Campbell. (It means crooked mouth in Irish, which I do believe jinxed me for years of braces yet to come.) The family was a bit puzzled, because Campbell was originally supposed to be a surname, but after some initial confusion, they liked my name as a reminder of Patrick Campbell. However, the difficulty was not in their acceptance of my name, but rather in my own acceptance of my name, which took years to come about.
Going through my childhood, I didn’t encounter anyone else with my name. When I was in elementary school, I would never raise my hand when visiting speakers asked for volunteers, because I knew the visiting speakers would ask the names of the volunteers, and then I would have to tell them my name.
In middle school, I once tried to explain that in Ireland, we say “Campbell”, but in America it becomes “Cah-um-bell”. For an unproductive ten minutes, everyone tried to say it the Irish way. After thirty seconds, I decided enough was enough and told everyone no, don’t bother, it was ok- but they kept going. “No, really, we want to get it right! Is it Compbell? Cempbell?”
Doing the production of The Pirates of Penzance, I decided that summer camp was as good a time as any to not be Campbell. Two weeks was just long enough to see if I liked it or not, and then I would never see the people again. After that would come freshman year in a new school, where I didn’t have to be Campbell anymore if I liked my two week experiment. I tried on my middle name, Claire, and for the two weeks, the name Claire seemed to fit me well, except for the embarrassing moment when I accidentally lapsed into “Campbell” again, or when I would take just an extra second to respond to “Claire”. During those two weeks, we sang, stage-fought, joked, and had a birthday party for Eva, the ghost of the music hall. Claire seemed more confident than Campbell was, and more willing to take risks. Claire was a bit snarky too. But at the end of the two weeks, to my own surprise, enough was enough. Claire was buried with the long list of other childish fancies I have entertained in my lifetime, like putting all my clothes on my bed and just leaving them there, or insisting on wearing a tutu in January. But I think I look back on my two weeks as Claire with a bit more understanding than I look back on the tutu in January.
At my new school, I introduced myself as Campbell with a renewed sense of pride. I never thought I would hear about that summer camp again, but to my surprise, I have met kids from that camp afterwards. “Um, so are you Claire or Campbell?” To that question, I give some sort of explanation, and later I think on the progress I’ve made with my name. I wouldn’t say those two weeks were a miraculous change, but they helped me to accept a critical part of myself. I still get a bit flustered when someone tries too hard to learn my name or say it the Irish way, and I still give my name as Amy to the poor Starbucks barista to avoid confusion or misspellings. But I have definitely made peace with my name, and with this comes a new sense of confidence. As I said before, names have tremendous power- just think of Malcolm X or Muhammad Ali, both of whom saw great power in reclaiming their names. I once let the power of a name beat me over the head, but now I’ve channeled that power towards a larger goal of pride in who I am. If someone remembers me by the soup, so be it.