Friday, July 25, 2008

Barack Tease

In the beginning, way back in the dark, dim recesses of time (last week), I promised to reveal specifics of what it’s like to grow up with the name Barak. Which would be, one imagines, very much like growing up with the name ... Barack. What small currency I have in the connection, well, I'm about to toss it up on the bar. Will it be enough for a drink at the tap of immortality? No? How about a drink at the tap of Heineken?

Whatever you're pouring, join me now at the Virtual History Dome and, peering through a cloudy crystal of memory and projection, let's observe the young Barack as he takes abuse from his classmates.

Of course, unlike me, the young Barack was smart enough to mitigate the effects of his freaky Semitic name and adopt that horrific "Brady Bunch" nickname previously dismissed in these very pixels: Barry. Fair enough. Barack was an operator from way back, just like every pundit is saying this week.

Superficial similarities aside, I have little to offer in the way of empathetic reflections, because, well, I wasn't fresh off the boat from Indonesia, I wasn't black, I wasn't between religions, and while my white mom was certainly plowing her own furrow in the world, like Mom Obama, and my dad was a foreigner and kind of an extremist in his own way, like Papa Obama, that about sums up the overlaps. I was no lanky black Barry -- I was just a chunky little Jewish Barak with long hair, freckles, glasses, and the weirdest name in the schoolyard. Should I have adopted a simpler name and removed one obstacle to adaptation? Was that the presidential move? I never made those moves. Maybe I liked the name and wasn't looking to blend in.

April Is the Cruelest Child

Kids. Everyone knows kids are cruel. Everyone knows kids who are cruel. Except their own spirited little darlings. Even the most tormented children turn oppressor at the first opportunity. Like fat April, who had perma-cooties and the sharpest tongue in class. Whatever your weakness -- weight, walleyes, wonkiness -- kids will seize it and tease it till something unravels. And if nothing unravels, either you've walloped them but good and established some higher spot in the pecking order, or you've learned to put up with stuff.

Because really, how bad is it to be called "broccoli"? Or more faithfully perhaps, "Barak-aly." It's not so bad. Now, anyway. My parents must have laughed when I first came home full of bitter reproach, accusing them of having set me up from birth for vegetative ridicule. (Nothing like those kiwi loons in yesterday's paper -- they really do deserve anything they get.) But in fact, my aversion to exercise did make me kind of a vegetable. More a turnip than a broccoli, but that kind of leap across the produce aisle lies beyond the schoolyard pale. And humor, even the basest kind, dies in explanation.

Island Sounds

Unlike pop songs. Oh, to hear again some pint-size wag crooning, "I am Barak, I am an island." Seems charming now. That reference might pack less of a punch in Hawaii than in L.A., but if the kid is in fact somewhat cut off from classmates by geography, background, and temperament, the insinuation of total emotional isolation stings. I suspect Barack may have dealt with that one. Though Barry may have dodged it.

But as one ages and enters, for example, 7th grade Music Appreciation class, the teasing develops a veneer of sophistication. As any Gregory knows, the chants and the calendar are a revelation for tiny taunters. The Renaissance lacks hooks for ridicule, and all's well ... till we reach the Baroque Period.

Then all hell breaks loose. Some back-row smartypants sneers "Baroque Obama," for example, and the crowd goes wild. "Hey, Baroque -- where's your sister, Rococo?" and on and on. Even the teacher couldn’t help but laugh. In fact, to this day, the British, those Lords of Wit, generally find my name funny. Let's see how the joke plays at 10 Downing Street next year.


Years pass, and name-based teasing fades away. High school kids have to be pretty backward to tease other kids for their names. (Sorry, Harry Tsomides, for everything you put up with in 12th grade. I hope things got better later.)

Harry's name may yet be an exception, but at a certain point, an eccentric name becomes ... almost an asset. People remember you. You always have something to talk about for three minutes upon meeting someone. And Barak and Barack, for example, lend themselves to friendly wordplay. B-rock. Barack and roll! Barak the house! Barack the vote! I don't encourage this, but I don't mind it. It's just what people do. Nicknaming starts out a control issue and usually turns into something else with age. Except among sports fans and TV commentators. Draw your own conclusions.

Much as I thought my name was an abuse magnet in school, either my memory is gone, or there wasn't really so much to deal with. I guess there was a lot of Ba-cock and Barak-a-doodle-doo and so on, but ... it wasn't Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii (see kiwi loons, above ... or below).

And after a time, having a name like Barak is just like having one blue eye and one green eye ... or an extra finger. Or bright red hair. (I have all these things.) (OK, no, I don't, but it's a funny image.) You get used to it, and you don't talk about it as much. It becomes just another thing you live with.

Unless things change, and the unusual becomes usual. And having a name like Barak becomes like having a name like Barack. Very, very, very much like that.

And then, little by little, having a name like Barak becomes a topic again.

1 comment:

Lydia said...

Just be glad your name doesn't rhyme with an STD.