I always interrupted the teacher during the first roll call of the year. It was easier than having her first stumble over my given name and then, desperately, switch to the last name as if it might be an escape. “Ilyanna” I would say. “Just call me Yanna”.
It was an odd duck name. But that was okay – I was an odd duck. Still am, really. Back then, though, my name really stood out. I grew up in a small rural town in the mountains, mostly white folks. Some were well-educated, but it was a working-class town with an industrial heart. I studied alongside the kids of ranchers and miners, and for all my family’s pedigree my mother owned a small blue-collar business, too. Which is why my name seemed so very exotic, even when shortened.
I’ve travelled a fair bit since then: all over Western and Eastern Europe, down into Mexico, Russia (well, back then it was the Soviet Union) and even northern Africa. When I’m travelling I use my full name. I roll it out, playing with the consonants, exaggerating the vowels, making it fit the accent of my current locale. My name is a geographic chameleon, similar to a local name everywhere I go. If I say it right folks think that even if I’m not native I’m still somehow related.
I didn’t always love my name. My mother balanced the odd and the pedestrian, and for a short time I tried on my mundane middle name. It didn’t fit. By then I’d begun to believe that people grow into their names. Small names, like Bob, are reassuring, but don’t have long horizons. Syllables are challenges for children to overcome, stories to build. I’ve found that an unusual name is a delightful key with which I can unlock a personal conversation with a stranger or identify a fellow traveler.
More than once I’ve broken the ice with a joke about having a difficult name. With that laugh I can set people at ease. And I always have a story ready to hand. “My name?” I respond. “My folks had a deal. Dad got to name a girl, Mom got to name a boy. Dad won – thank goodness! I don’t think I’d be a good Jason.” That’s never the end, though. “Dad told us that he grew up next door to an Ilyanna. He’s gone now, and his family says they’d never heard the name before me. It’s a mystery.”
It was a delicious mystery to a weird child in a small town. I learned that there was a Princess Ileana of Romania, and late at night I would stare at the moon and imagine I was a princess. Even today I carry that association of nobility with me. My friends and family call me Yanna, but when first meeting someone I stand tall and give them my full name. It’s who I am.