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What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.

Shakespeare

I was quite young for my grade, having started kindergarten at the tender age of four, and by the time I entered my sophomore year in school I was only fourteen years of age. Having recently graduated from the junior high school, I had finally developed a little bit of confidence in myself; surviving the meat grinder that is junior high. Whatever confidence I had when I arrived at the high school was quickly tamped down by the seniors, always roaming the hallways for underclassmen to intimidate and embarrass. As a sophomore it was important to learn, and learn quickly, which areas of the school were off-limits and which were reserved for you. If you got caught out of your territory, it could become quite traumatic. It paid to remain anonymous and invisible. Unfortunately, some of the teachers also took pleasure in exposing and embarrassing students and I soon became an unwilling target.

It didn’t take long; in fact it was the opening day of school when the initial blow was delivered. It happened in fifth hour history class. The history teacher had a reputation for spending the entire opening day of class telling stories of his experiences during World War II and how he was captured by the Germans and all of the details surrounding the events. Most of the students found the stories boring, but having a love for history, I was engaged and maintained eye contact with the storyteller the entire time. As he was narrating the drama, a piece of paper was being passed around for each of us to sign; a seating chart of sorts. When he had finished the tale, he sat down at his desk and began reading the names on the paper and glancing out into the room in order to put a name with a face.

During the lull I was behaving; sitting in my seat, not bothering a soul. Well, I was talking to a few of my friends in the immediate vicinity, but other than that I was behaving. I had a funny feeling that the seating arrangements would change, as they had in all my previous classes. I usually picked the chair in the far back corner of the room, and somehow ended up at the desk right in front of the teacher. I should have tried reverse psychology and picked the front desk upon entering the room and I might have ended up at the back during the ensuing shuffle. As it was, I showed my cards too soon and paid the price for the remainder of the school year.

The teacher finally stood up in front of the class and at one point he read my name, Ronnie Bay. I immediately stopped talking and turned around to see what the teacher wanted. He then said in front of the entire class, “Aren’t you a little bit old to be called Ronnie?” I was stunned at the directness of the question. My face turned three shades of red and I stammered, “That’s my name.” It was true. It was the only name that I knew. My parents called me Ronnie, my siblings called me Ronnie and all my friends called me Ronnie. I didn’t understand his question.

What was wrong with my name? I knew that my legal name was Ronald, but whom, other than the actors Coleman and Reagan, went around calling themselves that? I recall a favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs inadvertently gets thrust into the wrestling ring with “The Crusher” when his original opponent, “Ravishing Ronald” is beaten to a pulp and has to retire. How could I wear that moniker after Ronald’s embarrassing performance? (Of course Bugs defeats The Crusher, but I couldn’t go around referring to myself as Bugs now could I?)

Ronnie isn’t such a bad name. The music business had a few Ronnie’s that did pretty well for themselves; Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd fame as well as Ronnie Milsap and Ronnie Spector. And who could forget Ronnie Lott from the San Francisco 49ers; a Hall of Famer? For years Pat Hughes referred to his Chicago Cubs broadcast partner as Ronnie Santo, also a Hall of Famer. And Nancy Reagan endearingly referred to the President as Ronnie. Who did this teacher think he was anyway? (I think the teacher’s first name was Clarence. Clarence! And he’s making fun of me?)

Because I was only a fourteen year old boy, and because at this point in my life I was shy on confidence and self-esteem, I didn’t respond at all to his question. I just sat there embarrassed, knowing that all eyes in the classroom were focused on me. I vowed to myself that I would never refer to myself as Ronnie again and from that day forward I’ve signed my name, Ron Bay, Jr. It makes me realize how much impact and influence one person can have on another, especially a young person. And the influence is not always good.

My family and many of my old friends still call me Ronnie. It used to bother me; after all I’m a fifty-five year old man. I have my dignity to uphold. But I no longer see it that way. When I hear them call me by that name, it takes me back to a time of innocence and youth. A time before a teacher made fun of me in front of the class and led me to change my name. Although I go by Ron today, I’m still Ronnie deep down inside.

*This story is an excerpt from Always a Little Heathen, to be released in the fall of 2014.

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