If my brother Alex Dubin had been named Rubin Dubin, as my parents teased my grandparents he would, I wonder if he’d be a different person. Would a rhyming name have made him a little less confident, a little less bold? Would the nerdy Jewish “Rubin” have sealed his fate as an online gamer with red and nervous eyes? Or would Rubin, much less common these days than Alex, have given him a leg up in the world, since more people might remember it?
No one but family calls my brother Alex anyway. The rest of the world rejected that ordinary designation for such a force of a man and dubbed him just his last name. Even his wife calls him Dubin, which is practically Rubin. Perhaps he was fated to be Dubin. Perhaps we're all fated to have the names we are called.
Nobody's got my name. I love that. When someone says, "I'm hanging out with Minna this weekend," nobody responds, "Which Minna?" Of course there are downsides to uncommon names. In grade school, every time substitutes called out "Meena Dubbin" or "Myna Durbin," I wished I were Jessica Smith. We uncommon-name folks become experts in deciding when to correct or not correct others' misspellings and mispronunciations.
We tell ourselves that this skill of learning to elegantly navigate the name battlefield builds character. Or is that just something our parents said to comfort us when we came home dented from middle-school ridicule? As parents, we have to decide - do we give our children normalcy and familiarity or uniqueness and mystique? Or are we placing too much importance on a name?
At the school I work in for pregnant and parenting teens, names are a regular topic of discussion. The young women toss names around, laughing and scrunching up their faces or nodding in agreement. The newest mother-to-be listens carefully, adding new names to the mental list she keeps. Some of the students give their babies traditional names like Isaac, Thomas, and Anthony. Others give hipper celebrity names like Jayden and Aliyaah. Mostly, I like the names they choose. And even more I like the group camaraderie that wrestles its way into these conversations, silent and stubborn, like the students themselves when they each first arrive at the school wary and nervous in their big-bellied adolescence.
I try to be as graceful as I can in my ignorance of what these young women were experiencing. Sometimes I mess up, such as when I spotted Miah, sitting in a rocking chair with her newborn son in her arms. Last I had seen her, she was waddling to class, irritated and exhausted. Here she was weeks later, looking calm, awake, and pretty darn blissful. I was happy to see her. Miah's a talented poet who is sassy and makes me laugh.
I walked to where Miah was rocking and gushed over her beautiful baby. Then I asked what his name was.
"Melchizedek," she said.
I stood there stunned. I don't know why. Miah is Filipina and her name is Nehemiah Bernadette Diwata Vergara. I would have been even more stunned if she'd said her son's whole name, Melchizedek Joseph Gillego Dimakawili. But she probably figured Melchizedek was quite enough for me to handle. Instead of smiling and saying, "Lovely," I blurted out, "Are you gonna give him a nickname?" She responded calmly and plainly, "No, just Melchizedek."
I started to backpedal, explaining that kids always give nicknames to their friends. "What nickname," I wondered aloud, "will his friends give him?" Mel, of course, first came to mind, but I couldn't bring myself to say it. A mother who names her son Melchizedek might not want to hear him called Mel. Then I said excitedly, "Zed!" Miah sort of sighed and smiled, either too chilled out and tired or too patient and uninterested to tell me I was being ignorant. Past the point of redeeming myself, I repeated how beautiful the baby was, shut my mouth, and walked away.
I wonder who Melchizedek will be. Will that name make him strong? Make him sure of himself, so he will hold on to his authentic voice like his mom? Though, with a mother like Miah, he might be all those things even if she named him Bob, which, of course, she never would. Perhaps our names tell more about those who name us than about ourselves.
Now pregnant with my first baby, I wonder what the name I give my child will say about him or her - or me. I've had a girl name picked out for years, but a boy's name has proven difficult. I want it to be sweet for a baby, but strong for a grown man. Recognizable yet original. The only one I like is Elie. But my husband's last name is Elitzur, and I just can't bring myself to name the child Elie Elitzur. It's strangely reminiscent of my parents' Rubin Dubin joke.
These are not important life problems, I know. I should just name the kid Ocean and call it a day. No one will mispronounce it. Everyone will know how to spell it. And if someone asks if I’m gonna give him a nickname, I’ll try to channel Miah’s patience, smile calmly, and say, “No, just Ocean.”
Minna Dubin is a Central High School grad who lives in San Francisco and teaches memoir-writing to high school students