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Can I Get a Name?

All school assignment instructions have one common denominator: include your name. As soon as I learned this in elementary school, it was the first thing I did when I got a worksheet or pulled out a fresh sheet of lined paper. My diligence was fueled partly by my people-pleasing, rule-following nature and partly by the fear of having to make the walk of shame in response to a teacher calling out, “Whose paper is this?” My hand gravitated automatically to the top right corner (why does it move to the left in high school?) and I took my time as I pressed a little too hard onto the paper. K-I-M-B-E-R-L-Y. It was my given name, my legal name, the one that always showed up on attendance sheets and the laminated name cards placed on my desk at the beginning of each year. It’s how I was taught to spell my name and though most people who know me have always called me Kim, I never shortened it in writing. Maybe it was the court scene in Miracle on 34th Street when I heard the phrase, “Do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” for the first time, or maybe it was the children’s song we sang in church on Sunday that repeats the phrase, “Choose the right,” over and over, but somehow I got it stuck in my mind that it was dishonest to just write Kim.

Except I hated the name Kimberly. Kimberly was the name my Grandma Lowe put on my birthday cards, a consistent reminder that she was too far away to really know me. Kimberly felt unfamiliar, a misnomer I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It just didn’t feel like me. But I never corrected people when they said Kimberly. Even when teachers asked, “Do you prefer to go by Kimberly or Kim?” at the beginning of the school year, my response was always a quick, “It doesn’t matter.” I never considered I could suggest it on my own – never realizing the irony that this time I actually was lying. Eventually, I learned I could respond with, “I prefer to go by Kim,” but it still wasn’t until high school that I gained enough confidence to put it on school assignments. Gradually, though, Kimberly became a name I used only when I when I flew on airplanes or filled out my taxes.

I was in college when I had a sudden realization. I could change my first name when I get married. I’ll have to change my last name anyway so I could just change my first name too. At the time, I was thinking I would marry a man and would, of course, change my last name. There was a nagging guilty feeling about changing my first name though. I was worried about offending my parents. While only a variation, it still felt like a rejection of the name they had carefully chosen for me. I worried they would interpret it as a reflection of their parenting, or worse, of negative feelings towards them (which I didn’t have). My inner five-year-old self seemed to be reminding me it was wrong.

When I married Kaitlyn, it was much less of a given which last name we would take. It was important to me that we have the same last name, but how did we choose between the two? Ultimately, it came down to practicality. My parents hadn’t given me a middle name, always intending for my last name to become my middle. It also felt like just the nudge I needed to finally change my first name. “I’ll always be Kim Lowe as a writer, though,” I said. And Kaitlyn quickly nodded in acceptance.

As anyone who has changed their name knows, it’s nothing but a big ol’ pain. I made a list of all the many places I needed to change it, leaving off the five million stores that have suckered me into giving my name, email, favorite color, and birthdate of my unborn first child to just check out of the store. I started with the most important, the social security office, and went on my lunch break (oh the optimism). I came prepared with a purple folder of every possible piece of identification I could need, and the necessary forms already filled out – I wasn’t going through this process again. I walked in, grabbed a number, and took a seat in the small waiting room. I looked up at the monitor displaying the current line number, 288, then glanced down at the small tab of paper I held: 289. Yes! I thought. I got lucky.

But I think we all know where this is going. I scrolled through my phone, believing it wouldn’t take long but also wanting to send the clear message that I was very busy and please don’t talk to me. I crossed and uncrossed my legs, mildly thinking about the variety of people sitting in the waiting room, wondering what each of their reasons were for coming in. Eventually the numbers on the screen shifted as a voice announced the next person. “Number 14!” they called. The hell is this numbering system? I thought, before realizing different sets of numbers were assigned to each window. Okay, okay. Still only one person ahead of me, I reassured myself.

An hour and a half later all hope drained to utter annoyance. What can possibly take this long? As I sat there debating the maximum time my lunch break could be, they finally called my number. My folder and I were ready.

“So, you’re changing your last name and your middle name,” the worker said. It wasn’t a question.

“And my first name,” I added.

“Can’t,” she said, without looking up.

“Sorry?”

“You can’t change your first name without a court order,” she said simply, stamping one of the papers before placing it to the side. She said it with finality and complete disengagement. I didn’t need to ask any other questions.

I left feeling dumb for not knowing the requirement for a court order. I assumed it would be easy, that I would be able to choose what I wanted to be called (how dare I?) and the hurdle of a court order felt insurmountable. I can’t appear in front of a judge. I don’t want to go to court. Maybe it’s not worth it after all.

Feeling defeated, I talked my fears through with Kaitlyn. “I have a coworker who just changed their name,” she said. “They said you can fill out all the paperwork online and just submit a court fee.”

For someone who thrives on exclusively using chat for customer support, this was a dream come true. While the filing fee, totaling over $100, wasn’t exactly how I planned to spend money, it felt like nothing compared to the anxiety of needing to defend my name in a court of law (I’m no Kris Kringle). I filled out the paperwork, submitted it online, and waited in anticipation, still somewhat skeptical I would be able to get off that easy.

But from that point forward, it really was that easy. I got the notarized letter in the mail, authorizing the name change (thank you, Oregon). My second trip to the social security office was much quicker than the first, and the dominoes started to fall for changing it in other places – the DMV, the bank, my insurance.

It was a small change, seemingly inconsequential for everyone else but me. In fact, several people said in response, “Oh, I didn’t even know your full name was Kimberly”. Yet there was a power in shedding the unnecessary letters of my name, of asserting my preferences, unprompted. My name matches how I feel, how I think about myself. I don’t have to answer the question about my name preference anymore. I already have it.

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