In 1987, my father was newly 30, and in the ripe of his moderate obsession with philosopher and writer Ayn Rand. I was baby number three, and in the dead of winter, just six days before Christmas in a town outside Toronto, my father would insist on a little spelling homage in my name. Jillanna, how it is to be said, would be come Jillayna.
That "y," that little piece of ethical altruism splashed into my name would prove to set the stage for my future. What's in a name? It turns out, a hell of a lot.
My dad was always smart, opinionated and something of a light-hearted intellectual. He was playful in his whisker rubs, and a sucker for letting into an 8th game of Mickey Mouse Yahtzee. From him, I gained a tendency to always have my nose in a book, to consume a wide variety of books, and an inability to let them go afterward. But my bedtime stories weren't always those of a typical 8-year-old. It was in the 4th grade, when we were encouraged to memorize our favorite poem and recite it to the class, that my substitute teacher brought me aside, praising my ability to have almost all of The Cremation of Sam McGee memorized, but stressing that I should consider another poem. "I don't know how your friends will feel about that poem," she offered. She asked me if I had any other poems, and I offered up The Shooting of Dan McGrew. Needless to say, she handed me a copy of A Light in the Attic.
In middle school, my attempt to make a diorama of Equality 72521's life in Rand's, Anthem proved futile as I tried to explain the symbolism of the abandoned shack in the forest. And by grade 11, I had my own box set of Rand's work and was shrugging my shoulders proclaiming, 'Who is John Galt'? For whatever reason, most people didn't seem to know what I was taking about.
Jillayna. A "y" because of my dad's interest in Ayn Rand's then ground-breaking philosophy and literature. Except, nobody could (or can) say my name. "Just don't say the y" practically became my mantra in life. If people had never seen my name written, they could say it just fine. Jillanna, easy-peasy. But as soon as they saw it in type in front of them, everything they knew about me seemed to change. People that had known me for a while suddenly couldn't say it anymore. It became Jill-aye-nah. Or Jilly-anna. No, no no. To say that role call in school would become stressful would be an understatement. Most of the time, I was dejected after the teacher's 5th attempt to say it and I'd say, "oh just call me Jill."
In my early twenties, upon completing an undergraduate degree in Psychology and Anthropology and heading into social-work world, I sent out a number of resumes to job openings I found online. Resume header: Jillayna Adamson. It was at a Starbucks, after watching a pimply teenager stare at my name scrawled on the side of my latte for a solid minute (I had spelled it out for the cashier who scribbled it on in Sharpie), his lips moving silently as he went over in his head how he might pronounce this, that my resume occurred to me. What if they aren't calling because of my name? What if, on top of not wanting to deal with the awkwardness of making a phone call to someone whose name you don't know how to say, a million assumptions are being made about me? What if I am being weeded out?
And so, that evening, I changed my name on my resume. Jill. I sent it out again, to many of the same agencies. By the end of the week, I had two interviews. By the following week, I had two more call-backs from other places.
So what was happening? Was it the discomfort about having to pronounce it? Laziness? Assumptions about my potential nationality, race, or religion, that employers didn't even want to be bothered with? Not that it matters, but I am a Caucasian Canadian. If they're worried about me having some kind of an accent, the worst of their worries will be how I pronounce my 'o's' and that hats are called tukes. And that Rutabegas are what Canadian's call Turnips. (And don't even get me started on American turnips.)
As a writer and photographer, do people look at my name and use it as a determining factor? Does the anxiety about how they might pronounce it influence a decision? Now, as I complete my master's degree and prepare for a different kind of working world in mental health, I wonder, how will my name impact my chances? I have thought at length about changing the spelling of my name, or going by "Jill" more regularly. It would simplify my life. Because sadly, I have a hard time believing that it's not impacting the opportunities in various aspects of my world. But then, I hate to give into the system, and I feel for individuals who truly are of varying ethnicities in America (as well as all the other people with difficult-to-pronounce names). And maybe it is one of those 'pick your battles' battles. Because the reality is, in America, people can choose, and they will choose. And if that "Y" in my name puts them outside their comfort zone, it's a "make-it-or-break-it" deal. So I can be "Jill" in my dinner reservation, to avoid the 20 minutes-long spelling and explanation. I can be Jill when it's easier, when it's simpler. But when it came down to changing the spelling of my name, or abandoning my full name all together, I simply couldn't. My name -- no matter how frustrating, confusing or discrimination-provoking it may be -- is still mine. Names can be the vessels of stories, the hosts of memories, associations, faces and places. For me, it's John Galt and Sam Mcgee, it's twenty years ago -- my dad's whisker rubs as he calls me Jillayna-Banana, its playful death stares at teachers and professors who will now never ever forget my name, it's my grandma, who always puts my name in quotes on my birthday cards (as if maybe it's not a real name) but whose voice I can scarcely ever recall calling me "Jill." It turns out, there is a whole world that lives in a name.
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