In which I undergo a name change in the 7th grade. This was a good thing.
“Graham? What kind of name is that?” I suppose I could have taken my friend Larry’s question as genuine interest in the derivation of my name, Graham, but we were nine and the tone of his voice was unmistakable. Graham was an unusual first name, and having an unusual first name was a sign of weirdness. At age nine, I had no interest in being weird, I just wanted to fit in. The unusual last name of “Shinnick” didn’t help and taken together, the name Graham Shinnick made no sense at all. I had a little league football coach who ran the two together and called me Grahamshinnick for two years. I never had the nerve to correct him.
Eventually, I would be able to point to several famous Grahams. There was famed race car driver Graham Hill. Of course, there was Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and if I accepted an alternate spelling, there was Graeme Edge of the Moody Blues. There was Graham Chapman of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Graham Norton, host of one of my favorite television shows, Graham Kerr, a.k.a. the Galloping Gourmet, the list goes on. People on this list share two traits. None are Americans and not one of them had achieved fame when I was nine. I was Graham before my time. Like many trailblazers, it was a solitary and often tormented existence.
When I was nine, there was only one famous Graham. Graham Cracker. The Graham Cracker is so named because it is made of Graham flour, itself named after Sylvester Graham. Yes, Graham was his last name. He was a Presbyterian minister who preached the virtues of a healthy diet, including whole grains. His name thus became attached to a type of flour, the crackers made from it, and even a bread. Sylvester Graham neither invented nor earned a cent from these products. He was, however indirectly, responsible for me being called “Graham Cracker” during the early years of my life. How I hated being called Graham Cracker as I so often was.
Actually, Graham wasn’t even my real first name. I was Christened John Graham Shinnick II after my father’s brother, John Graham Shinnick. My brother got Fred Marvin Shinnick III after our father and grandfather. Okay, I never said I came from a creative family. But we knew protocol. My dad, having only one brother, went with my mom to said brother and his wife to ask permission to use his name for their new bundle of joy.
I can imagine their delight. “Oh, how wonderful. Such an honor. We feel so fortunate to have the name passed on this way, what with our having four daughters. Of course, you can use the name.” But there was a caveat thrown in by Aunt Josephine. Ah yes, dear Jo-mommy as she was affectionately known in the family. To this day I remember her fondly. I really do. But it was she who insisted that if I was to be named after her wonderful husband, I should be called by what he was called, and that was Graham.
The little piece of family lore that explained why he was always called by his middle name was never passed on to me. Graham was his mother’s maiden name. The irony of this irony was that for the first twelve years of my life, there was only one person who didn’t call me Graham. That, of course, was Aunt Josephine. As it was later explained to me, she quickly concluded that there could be only one Graham, and that was her husband. Too late, Jo-mommy, the damage had been done.
I was introduced at school as Graham. I was introduced at church as Graham. I was introduced to Little League as Graham. Damn it, we never moved from the time I was six, and inertia seemed to dictate that I would likely have this odd name and be called Graham Cracker for the rest of my life. It would take something monumental, utterly civilization changing, to disrupt the forces which had been set in motion at the time of my birth.
Yes, Sylvester Graham was my unwitting tormentor, but bureaucracy was to become my savior. As I made my way from elementary school to junior high school, the growth in the number of students gave the administrators no room for me to introduce myself by my middle name.
As I settled into homeroom beginning my first day at Derby Junior High, Mr. Courter read my name for attendance from the roster he’d been given: “Shinnick, John G.” A couple of people I knew from Harlan Elementary School and a couple of others who knew me from Little League gave me a rather perplexed look. I made the obligatory correction. “Here. But I go by my middle name Graham.” Mr. Courter dutifully noted the correction.
First period came shortly thereafter. Different people, same story. Another small assortment of friends from Harlan Elementary, Little League, and one from church, gave the same quizzical look upon hearing “Shinnick, John G.” Again, I made the obligatory correction. It would be a long day. Second period was yet another repeat with the same amendment.
Third period was math with Mrs. Kauth. “Shinnick, John G.” “Here, but I go…” I stopped, struck by the epiphany of all epiphanies. What the hell was I doing? I utterly detested being called by my middle name Graham. Could I now leave Graham Cracker behind? I’d have to undo the damage done in homeroom and my first two classes. I’d have to explain things to my friends and other acquaintances, and what of my parents? But this was a new school with new kids and apparently new ways of doing things. We were entering the age of computers, and who was I to argue with this brave new world? A smile came over my face as I thought to myself, “Yeah, technology’s pretty cool.” I was shaken from this reverie as Mrs. Kauth repeated “Shinnick, John G.” My reply was clear, confident, and unequivocal. “Here.”
I never looked back.