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He thought that he¶d heard that²somewhere²before²it seemed like too much of what Davy, his little brother, would call a ³legit quote,´ for him to be spouting it entirely randomly. ³What¶s in a name?´ he repeated, only this time he repeated it out loud, and a nameless upperclassman punched him on the shoulder jovially as if an old friend, and said, ³Whatcha spouting Shakespeare for, Romeo?´ and laughed, walking off, brown leather book bag slung low on his shoulder. Romeo. Of course. It was Romeo and Juliet, they¶d read that in Honors Lit back in eighth grade²incredible, the idea that he didn¶t remember it. Well, it had been two years. His name was bothering him, now more than ever²was it because there was something girl-repulsing about the name Jeborah-Aspirin Gravitch? Jeborah could pass for Jeb, and Aspirin for Aspen²sometimes²if he was lucky²but rarely did he get lucky. The first day of school, when all the teachers were doing ³icebreaker´ activities as though they were clumsy first-graders who¶d never met, rather than seasoned tenth-graders (as they imagined themselves to be), the Psych teacher started with, ³Why don¶t you all find one person you don¶t know or don¶t know very well, and talk to them?´ Everyone else was aiming for the new kid, Josh, who was new in every sense of the word (he¶d just moved from Iowa) but Jeborah walked up to Bill Thurston, a serious seventeen-year-old whom he¶d only met in passing. ³Hey,´ Jeborah said quietly. ³Your name¶s Bill, right?´ Of course he knew the senior¶s name was Bill (and he knew his last name was Thurston, too) but he didn¶t want to seem overly, strangely, knowledgeable²then it would seem like he was a stalker, when he was really just a sponge²a sponge absorbing meaningless knowledge, like the fact that he knew Bill was dating another tall, serious person² a Russian girl, Katya Azarov, a junior; or that he knew Bill¶s great-uncle was someone famous (from comments on Facebook) because to mention these things
would be to admit that he had engineered his earlier question of ³Your name is Bill, right?´and Jeborah wasn¶t quite ready to do that. ³Yep, I¶m Bill. You?´ ³Jeb,´ he said quickly. ³For some reason I thought your name was longer. Huh. Nice to meet you, Jeb,´ Bill said with little intonation. At that moment Mrs. Sykes walked by, wearing an expression that could only be described as that of a homeowner coming back to find that her cat had peed all over the carpet, but having to refrain from cursing because she had company over²that was, Jeborah thought, trying to refine his thoughts, she looked peeved but had a wide and artificial smile. ³This is going well, isn¶t it?´ she said with false cheeriness as Jeb¶s classmates played Thumb War and lounged aimlessly. ³You, my dear boy²´ she pointed at Jeb, ³I can¶t place your name. Something long, is it?´ ³Jeb,´ he said quickly, but her eyes lit up and she said, ³Yes, yes, yes,´ excitedly, ³you have the most delightfully long name, Jeborah-Aspirin...´ She looked up dreamily. ³Has an almost musical quality to it. Anyway, I shall leave you two to continue talking. Do carry on.´ She swept off, no doubt to comment on someone else¶s name or their style of introduction. As soon as she left, Bill turned to Jeb and cackled as only a teenage boy can, ³Jeborah-Aspirin? Jeborah-Aspirin? Did I hear that correctly?´ Gone was the serious glance and bored, polite smile. He was paying attention to Jeborah. ³Aspirin, like, like the drug aspirin?´ ³It saved my dad¶s life,´ Jeb explained weakly. ³He had a heart attack the day I was born. At least they didn¶t name me Penicillin or something...´ ³Yeah, but still...Jeborah-Aspirin?´ Bill bent over the desk, laughing. Jeborah debated whether he should be provoked or accepting of Bill¶s reaction. Admittedly, Bill hadn¶t shouted for the entire classroom to ³come take a look at the dude with the weird name,´ which was an improvement on most of the
reactions he¶d experienced, but at the same time, it had distracted the conversation away from serious topics he might have been hoping to discuss. The bell rang and everyone²relieved to be rid of the uncomfortable atmosphere created when teenagers are forcibly introduced to each other²flung themselves out the door with unsympathetic jokes of ³Thought this was the psych class, not the psych ward!´ Jeborah walked out slowly, trying to simmer off his resentment toward Mrs. Sykes with the thought that maybe she genuinely liked the name. The thought made her no less forgivable. He hummed quietly as he walked toward the literature room. He had developed no strong feelings toward the Language Arts teacher, Mr. Donner. He was a slender, pale, sort of effeminate man with bookish glasses and smudged brown shoes. He was neither an interesting nor boring teacher, nor strict, nor lenient. He meted out punishments with the same serene voice he used to welcome and dismiss each class, as though receiving a homework lunch was of as little matter as exiting the room. Jeborah only hoped that icebreaker activities were not some sort of districtwide mandate, as he did not relish the thought of hearing his name repeated in full. When he walked in²half a minute tardy²Mr. Donner raised an eyebrow but said nothing, merely handed Jeborah a brown slip to fill out, with the correct assumption that Jeborah knew what to do. It was the first day of class, but most everyone²including Jeborah²had already met Mr. Donner before. ³I think it would be appropriate to skip the regular icebreaker activities,´ said Mr. Donner, to a few cheers from the class, ³and launch into a discussion instead.´ He paused, and instead of saying what the discussion would be about, said suddenly, ³What is your name? Let¶s start with you, Katya. State your birth name, first and last, please; I don¶t care about nicknames at the moment.´ Katya Azarov stood up, with a rebellious smile.
³My name¶s Yekaterina Azarov. But everyone calls me Katya.´ She looked toward the girl sitting next to her to continue. ³I¶m Holland Park,´ said a brunette cheerleader Jeb knew from kindergarten. ³Sophia Nanette Chu.´ ³Emily Hinckley-Smith.´ And so it went on and on until finally, yet too soon, it stopped at Jeborah at the corner of the back of the class, and he sat still while everyone turned back to look at him. ³Well?´ Mr. Donner said gently, and Jeb decided he did not like this Donner fellow at all. ³Jeborah-Aspirin Gravitch,´ said Jeborah, with the heavy doomed finality of a man confessing to murder. As if on cue, the entire room laughed, some trying to hide it, others not. Mr. Donner stood unmoved at the front of the room, though Jeborah could have sworn he looked at the laughing students with something akin to disgust. ³Quiet down,´ he said in a reed-thin voice, and the room fell respectfully silent. ³This actually provides an interesting insight, because our discussion today is about name²specifically, the role of name in literature. I told you we would skip the icebreaker, and that was no icebreaker. That was an important part of our discussion.´ Mr. Donner pulled down a whiteboard and wrote in distinct, capitalized round-edged letters, ³What¶s in a name?´ ³Well?´ Mr. Donner said, fringing on impatience, as if waiting eagerly for someone to respond. ³What¶s in a name?´ He seemed enamored of the phrase, turning it over in his mouth as he said it. ³That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet...Does anyone know what I¶m quoting here?´ Sophia Chu¶s hand shot up.
³Romeo and Juliet!´ she said breathlessly. ³Indeed,´ said Mr. Donner. ³But is this true? Would a rose smell as sweet if we called it...what¶s an ugly name?´ ³Diarrhea!´ shouted a bulbous-nosed junior. ³Alright, diarrhea. But what about diarrhea? If it weren¶t associated with the disease²and all our collective food-poisoning experiences²would µdiarrhea¶ be a pretty name?´ There was some murmuring and discussion over this. ³Now what about Ms. Yekaterina Azarov?´ Mr. Donner said lightly. ³What are things you might...assume about her because of her name?´ ³She¶s Russian!´ shouted a sophomore boy cheekily. ³Well, aside from ethnic background. What about the fact that Katya goes by µKatya¶ and not µYekaterina?¶´ ³It shows that she¶s...I dunno, not stuck-up about her name, that she¶d rather have something short and simple and easier to pronounce?´ guessed Holland. Katya was shaking her head. ³Katya is just a traditional Russian short name for Yekaterina,´ she shrugged. ³My parents never called²call me Yekaterina...unless I get in trouble or something.´ ³How might your view of Katya change if her name were Poppy Fudgie?´ asked Mr. Donner in all seriousness. Everyone laughed at the funny name, but the boy next to me volunteered, ³I guess I would imagine her to be more...matronly? More like, you know plump? Good-natured?´ Mr. Donner nodded seriously, ³What might you think of Jeborah-Aspirin, because of his name?´ he daringly questioned the class, holding my gaze.
The class broke out into another frenzied discussion²in which everyone turned away from me and toward someone else, so that I was a dry, lone seashell buried in the sand while the overwhelming tide swept past²until Mr. Donner raised his hand for silence and looked expectantly for someone to speak. ³I guess, I dunno, it¶s like he¶s not afraid of social norms or something,´ said a football player. ³You know, he¶s like a pioneer.´ ³Yeah²like he doesn¶t worry about being µweird¶ and stuff,´ said Holland. Jeb looked at her in surprise. She looked back, unfazed. An image soon emerged of Jeborah as a lone pariah, an avant-garde changemaker who struggled against the tides of social normalcy. Jeborah had to say that the picture was not entirely unflattering. Yet he was rather dumbfounded by the fact that everyone saying these crazy things about him knew him, and many, like Holland, knew him well. So why were they saying these admiring things about him²that he would be a pariah, struggling against the all-consuming tide of social normalcy²when they knew it didn¶t describe him at all? He would soon receive an answer, for Mr. Donner said curtly, ³Now what might you think of Jeborah-Aspirin if he tried to go by Jeb?´ They knew that he tried to go by Jeb. Hell, it was what he¶d pleaded with them to call him. ³Well²I¶d feel sorry for him, I guess,´ said Sophia. ³I¶d feel sorry that he didn¶t have the strength to work through life bearing an admittedly unusual name, that guys, we did all laugh at, but still²I guess I¶d feel sorry that he would rather take the easy route and assimilate...´ ³Assimilating²that¶s like what we were reading about in the immigrant books we were reading in social studies,´ echoed Holland. They didn¶t look directly at Jeb²and they spoke in hypothetical terms²but Jeb could hear the conviction in their voices. Inside, he screamed, ³Why didn¶t you say those things about Katya shortening HER name?´ but he knew it was different.
³So where from the name Jeborah-Aspirin, you¶d assume that he¶s this courageous, pioneering sort of social outcast, when he goes by Jeb, you just think he sounds...weak?´ ³Essentially, yeah,´ Sophia said. ³So,´ Mr. Donner said slowly, ³That which we call a Jeborah-Aspirin, would NOT by any other name smell as sweet, eh?´ The class groaned half-authentically, in their obligatory show of teenage disgust toward a bad joke by a teacher, and Jeborah felt as though, if he could see himself, his cheeks would probably be red. Mr. Donner looked toward the clock. It was 5 minutes away from release bell. ³For your information, my name is Hephaestus Donner, Hephaestus after the mythological Greek god of metalworking and masonry. He was permanently crippled after being thrown off Mount Olympus by his mom, Hera, after being born, because she thought he was ugly,´ Mr. Donner said tonelessly. The class stared at him in awe. ³I can assure you,´ he said dryly, ³it had nothing to do with my mother¶s opinion on my appearance at birth. The whole thing, however, is a rather long story, as undoubtedly yours are too. Holland, are you named after the country, or after the posh London neighborhood? Katya, are you named after Catherine the Great¶s name in Russian, or is it unrelated? And where in the world does JeborahAspirin come from?´ he said, turning toward Jeb. ³Your homework today is to write a two-page personal narrative about where your name comes from²and how it has affected your life. Tomorrow, after we write and share our personal narratives, we¶ll discuss what names represent in stories. How would Scout be different to you in To Kill a Mockingbird if she went by her given name? Tom Riddle versus Lord Voldemort? But now it¶s time for you to start your personal narrative with the little time we have left in class. Think about what people have said about your name. How does their view of you change based on the name you go by?´
He looked directly at Jeborah, and in a fleeting moment Jeborah contrasted in his head the admiring description of the steadfast, peer-pressure ignoring Jeborah-Aspirin Gravitch, and the weak-kneed, assimilating, desperate Jeb, and the bell was close to ringing and he had to decide which one he wanted to be... At the top of the creamy notebook page, Jeborah wrote, I AM JEBORAH-ASPIRIN GRAVITCH followed by, I AM JEB And he bit his lip and crossed both out with thick definitive lines, and wrote instead, directly underneath, copied neatly off the board, the very question that had started it all. WHAT¶S IN A NAME?