Parents name their children for various reasons. I never did find out why my parents gave me my first name.
I hated my name. I wanted to be an Anne or an Elizabeth, a Susan or a Mary, names that were popular at the time. Why did my parents land me with a name like Valerie? I felt alone in the world.
My name presented many problems for me as a child. It seemed incredibly long as I tried printing all the letters in the right order. When we hit cursive writing, I found writing a capital ‘V’ almost impossible. It was far too curvy and not a letter we practised often in our handwriting lessons. Imagine my horror when I had to embroider my name onto my bag in sewing classes. Hard enough to write with pen and ink, a needle and embroidery cotton made the task almost impossible.
Even the pronunciation was a challenge for many. I’m told that as a child I referred to myself as Arwee, possibly as a result of mother’s incorrect pronunciation. She seemed unable or disinterested in pronouncing Valerie as it was written, but throughout her life called me Valrie. It wasn’t until I got to school that I was called Valerie by the teachers and then, once I’d learned to read I too could see how my name should be pronounced.
At school my name left me feeling incredibly alone. Most of the kids had real names, justified by there being several of them evident in the playground. Neither my friends nor I knew anyone else called Valerie. I felt a bit of a freak, as my surname was an unusual one as well. At the age of seven even knowing someone whose name started with ‘V’ would have helped.
That all changed when I was seven years old. Walking out to the bike sheds after school one day, an older girl ran up beside me. I’d never seen her before.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Really.” So is mine’” she said. “I just found out today there was another Valerie in the school. How old are you?”
With that she raced away and I don’t recall ever seeing her again. I looked in the playground and hung around the bike sheds, hoping to see her. Like a guardian angel, she’d burst unannounced into my life, making me feel less alone in the world, then she disappeared again just as quickly.
The next time I came across another namesake was when I was ten years old. My father decided I should start writing letters to penfriends. He’d even found one for me. Her name was Valerie and she was seventeen years old. She must have been a very nice girl, as she didn’t mind exchanging letters with a child seven years younger. Maybe she too hankered for another Valerie in the world.
I never learned to like my name. Soon after I started swimming competitively, my coach shortened my name to Val. It was easier to shout it from the side of the pool he explained. I didn’t argue. The short and snappy Val suited my new competitive nature. I became a different person over night.
I know people who have changed their names, for different reasons. I was happy to shorten mine. I know now, if I’m called my full name it is for something either important or serious.
But I’ll never forget the other Valerie in my school, whose fleeting appearance in my life left me feeling less alone in the world.
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