When I was a sophomore in high school, one of the final assignments in my intro to journalism class was to write an article about the origins of our names. In my “research” for this article (if you could even call it that), I interviewed several people, including my parents and friends, to discuss the literal meanings of my name and whether or not they were fitting. At one point, when I asked a classmate I had known since fifth grade to describe me in one word, his exact words were, “You’re just… Val.” Based on his answer, I fit my name well — at least the shortened version of it, anyway.
Of course, some people call me Valerie (my full name), but if I really wanted to, I could have pursued other options as well. I could go by my first and middle name instead, or just by my middle or last name (or a variation of my last name). At different times, I’ve had friends who called me Vallie or V, and I’ve even heard of girls named Valerie who shortened their names to Ri. Ultimately, I wonder what makes us choose the names we go by, and how our various nicknames might characterize us differently.
In Sarah Dessen’s latest novel What Happened To Goodbye, the main character’s entire identity seems to change based on what name she chooses to go by. Mclean Elizabeth Sweets was known as Mclean her entire life, until her parents’ divorce that led to her attending four different schools in the next two years. At the first new school, she was the popular Eliza (a variation of her middle name); next, she was the artistic Lizbit; then, she became Beth, the extremely involved yearbook student. This allows her to get close to others without really revealing much of herself, and makes it easier for her to leave a school and group of friends behind.
In high school and college, we desperately search for some semblance of identity, even if it isn’t necessary our own. We struggle with this, and rightfully so — in fact, according to Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, we face the crisis of identity vs. role confusion around this time in our lives. Some of us combat this by morphing into our friends and idols (I’ve known girls who switched from Southern belle to only-listens-to-rap to hipster within a year or so based on the circles of people they ran with), while others tried to find themselves alone.
Ultimately, while I see the appeal in Mclean’s actions (new identities means new opportunities, and not getting close to anyone means not getting hurt), I don’t think that changing your name or anything else exterior can really hide who you are inside. You may have traded in your cheerleading skirts for skinny jeans and flannel shirts, or grown a mountain man beard, or changed your name from Elizabeth to Lizzie, but you can’t as easily hide the fact that you bite your lip when you’re nervous, you have a sarcastic sense of humor and you are fiercely loyal to your friends. Your name might define you in some way (Valerie means “strong” in Latin, and I would like to think that I’ve remained strong in the face of my challenges), but when it all boils down to it, you are who you are and it doesn’t matter how you label that.