One day when I was in first grade, I was lingering over my lunch in the cafeteria, my classmates having left for recess. Behind me echoed the workaday clatter of the cafeteria ladies cleaning up; to my left, a bank of jalousie windows glowed with relentless Florida light; I was bathed by a gentle lukewarm breeze, and lulled by a Mockingbird’s liquid summery song. Three older boys, strangers to me, rushed to my table—they must have been waiting for their chance—and lined up across from me, staring down. Their leader, a towhead with a buzz cut, planted his palms on the table and leaned in as close as he could get. His head jerked as he yelled, “Dick! Dick! Dick! His name is Dick.”
I sat still as a toad, my fork grasped in my right hand, my orange milk carton still clutched in my left. My eyes stared fixedly somewhere between the cheery yellow tabletop and the bully’s scowl; my throat ached and burned, its muscles contracting as if to block not just a reply but my very breath. If I hadn’t known before then—and maybe I did because in my memory my motionless self gets the taunt—it was now clear that my name was a problem. It meant something nasty.
Looking back on my adolescent and teenage pains, not to mention the unexpected dilemmas of adulthood, that incident can seem trivial. But my response wasn’t, and I think my life changed that day. I felt labeled with an ugly signboard that I couldn’t shed and a condemnation that I couldn’t shake or even confess.
Few kids, even today, admit being bullied, and my unspeakable predicament made airing it to my parents
unthinkable. Anyway, I was as wary of them as I was of those bullies. My father, stoically ascending the corporate ladder at Kennedy Space Center, was a scarily silent figure when he was home; my mother, solely responsible for four children, and quick to whip or to berate, had already pegged me as her difficult child—I was recalcitrant, beset by nightmares, a bed-wetter. So there were preexisting conditions.
And I can’t solve for X here, my nature apart from my nurture, but I know that another boy might have shrugged off the blow to his self-esteem. Maybe that day in the cafeteria was just the final straw—one of those searing private events that demarcate a major before and after. Feeling unworthy and unclean, and alone in my plight, I began a slow self-imposed exile, in self-defense and in honor of what I took to be my peers’ unassailable opinion. As we whispered our first naughty words to each other in grade school, my lowly nickname would be among the first. It was shameful, and therefore so was I.
A few years later, I learned from my father’s copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People that you should try to remember someone’s name and constantly call him by it. That was the way to make friends (and, Carnegie implied, to get your own way). This insight became Carnegie’s Principle Three (after One, “Become genuinely interested in other people,” and Two, “Smile”): “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” From experiencing that and its opposite, I knew Carnegie spoke the truth. A name goes deep, back to earliest infancy, before conscious memory and even sentience, when words are but warm sounds. In the solace of cooing parental adoration, your name tolls for you at ego’s very dawn—this lovely murmur is me.
So we love our given names, even if we hate them. Even if they embarrass us. Even if we change them. Our first names come to feel synonymous with our very souls.
Dick, the traditional nickname for Richard, seemed then the nub of my social anxiety—and it was my actual name, emotionally and practically speaking. It didn’t help that Dicks in the news were awful. In 1966, the summer I was eleven, Mom drove us to Oklahoma to visit her parents, and while we were there, news broke that a man named Richard Speck had been arrested for murdering eight student nurses in Chicago. As I stared at his scary mug shot on the black-and-white TV, I heard the adults saying how horrible he was, and I feared that maybe one day I’d do what he did, that man with my first name. Maybe, deep down, I was evil too. Then, only three years later, Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon was elected president; soon the whole nation seemed to hate him, and his nickname epitomized his awfulness. Still ahead of me was Shakespeare’s Richard III—probably the most infamous, murderous, and fucked-up Dick in history and literature.
I tried to hide my true nature from outsiders, living as I was with an overdeveloped sense of shame, certain I was a wicked boy. In elementary school, even if I wasn’t a very good student, and shy with my peers, I was cheerful toward my teachers, trying to make them like me. My family actually called me Dickie, through sixth grade, after which I became Dick and quietly began to seek alternatives. In high school and through college I tried Rick. Which made me feel like an impostor, and I feared I must seem traitorous to my parents. But at any moment, I knew, any dolt could turn my name into a weapon against me.
Still, to flee Dick was to forsake the love associated with it and to abandon as well its history, and therefore its own unique appeal. Like all names, mine came with a story. My parents christened me Richard Stuart after my father’s best friend, Richard Stuart Mitchell, who, like my father, had grown up in the gray Midwest and fled as soon as he could to sunny California. Both men worked as pilots—for a time Dick Mitchell served as William Randolph Hearst’s chief pilot—and they met before the war, two flyboys ferrying passengers, cargo, and even airplanes themselves to buyers across the Pacific Ocean, in Australia. Mitchell, eight years older, was the boss. Dad worked for Uncle Dick, as I was told to call him, off and on for much of his adult life.
Something happened to my name after Dad and Dick’s generation that has since almost obliterated it as a naming option. Though my parents didn’t get the memo, most did. And the few Richards I knew growing up, including a cousin and one friend, went by Rick. A rarer few were known by Rich. In high school I noted one exception: Dickie Butterworth. Naturally, I avoided him. But then, I avoided everyone and willed myself to invisibility in the halls of Satellite High School—I was that nameless boy hugging the lockers.
However, I studied Dickie Butterworth from afar. A tanned, chubby teen who wore striped tee shirts, he appeared to be sweet and funny. Actually he seemed rather popular, and kids apparently liked calling out his quaint boyish name.
Dickie Butterworth! Completely vulnerable—as I saw it then, and still—he smiled submissively at the world, and the world smiled back. Or so it seemed to me in my watchful isolation. He’s getting away with it, I thought.
Meantime, drifting in my bubble, avoiding eye contact, I attracted the attention of other wounded boys, bullies who sought to take their pain out on mine.
In my fantasies, my parents had named me Paul, which I saw as softly sexy, or they’d dubbed me Jim, which seemed heroically masculine. I’d debate which I preferred, later wishing for something more unusual, epically southern, and romantic—Silas or Harlan, say. This habit hasn’t entirely left me. Recently, I decided there’s no male cognomen as sturdy and infused with goodness as Henry.
It wasn’t until middle age that I developed a theory about what happened to what was once an everyday and perfectly serviceable nickname, shorthand for a regular bloke. Unlike Tom and Harry, who survived, Dick was a casualty of World War II. During those four, long years, servicemen found themselves bored to death, angry as hell, and scared witless. Their response was swearing, on a scale that, like the war itself, was epic. GI speech was aflame with profanity, from creative army acronyms like FUBAR and SNAFU to short, hardbitten standbys like shit, fuck, cock, cunt—and dick. This scorching vulgarity came home only slightly dampened, another unforeseen effect of the war, along with industrial agriculture, better kitchen appliances, and TV shows featuring wry, wise fathers and servile, loving mothers.
Richard was America’s fifth most-popular boy’s name from 1930 to 1947, according to the U.S. Social Security Administration. From that peak, when over 30,000 babies in each million were named Richard, there was a steep plunge, so that by the 2000s fewer than 10,000 babies per million were named Richard. The top boys’ names now reflect the warmly masculine designer sensibility I yearned for in high school—cool tags like Jacob, Jude, Mason, and Ethan. I noticed that, as late as 2012, a classic, William, was still hanging in there at number five. (Except every last one is probably called William, not Bill.)
Richard, which means “rich and powerful ruler,” no longer even makes the list of the top 100 boys’ names.
Now, having gone by Richard for over thirty years, when I meet an old-timer going by Dick—or more rarely, someone roughly my age—I imagine he thinks me a coward. I feel defensive. As far as he knows I’ve always been called Richard, I tell myself as we shake hands. One does meet, after all, the rare older person, a James, say, sailing through life under the formal beauty of his unabbreviated biblical moniker.
But I sense, as Geezer Dick levels his rheumy, not-unkind eyes on me, that he knows the truth. I’m sure of it. And I do feel cowardly—indeed, craven. And embarrassed over having given in to vulgarity, feel vulgar myself. As dirty-minded as the world and its bullies. I think of my bald brethren who, unlike me, resort to wretched comb-overs, hating their very public cosmetic flaw. I’m fortunate that my father, perhaps because he was handsome, was unabashedly bald—ennobled, if anything, by his narcissistic wound.
Mom, the daughter of an even balder man than my father, told a story about the first time she saw someone with hair covering his scalp. “Dad,” she whispered to him in the neighborhood grocery, “that man has hair all over his head!”
He removed his pipe from his mouth and placed his other hand on her shoulder, drawing her into a confidence:
“Don’t say anything, honey. He’s probably embarrassed about it and hopes no one will notice.”
Ah, embarrassment. That weak sister of shame.
By the time my hair thinned in my late twenties, I was solidly Richard. Dick was just a bridge too far, for me. After my boyhood, maybe my retreating hair was just one vulnerability too many.
At least the shaved look emerged to give us chrome domes another styling option. At least the Greatest Generation’s legion of Dicks who haunt me are a dying breed.
One day in my adolescence I asked Mom what her middle initial of O stood for. A few of her siblings—there were ten children in her family—had unusual names: a brother was called simply Glo, and there were sisters named Viola and Nevada; another brother’s middle name was Jean, spelled like a girl’s, which caused him lifelong discomfort.
Mom paused before answering me as she stood over a basket, folding clothes onto her laundry room’s sturdy wooden table. Just a passing moment, but it speaks to me now, if it didn’t register much then.
You’d think I would have become sensitive to others’ feelings instead of just growing ever more thin-skinned myself. Yet knowing the power of words, especially of names, I taunted my siblings by twisting theirs. Meg became Maggot; David was Daymad. Peter, named after the doctor who delivered him, I left alone, maybe because his name was fraught with the same sex-organ metaphor, though to a lesser degree than mine. I knew my teasing hurt Meg and David, and I enjoyed their distress. What they never did in return—and I’m sure I’d remember if they had—was turn my nickname against me. Which must have only confirmed the unspeakable awfulness of mine. Probably they knew I’d go berserk.
“Ortrude,” Mom said at last, and folded a shirt onto the blonde wood tabletop.
“Ortrude? Ortrude? That’s the ugliest name I’ve ever heard!”
How I brayed at her. She held another shirt and didn’t speak. Her face was turned slightly down, toward the stark surface of her laundry table. I’m struck now by how still she stands in my mind’s eye, by how instantly I had diminished that fierce woman. Then I saw a tightness, a hardening, like a stiff bandage shielding a fresh burn, come over her face and constrict its features.
I can still feel how my own face went rigid at that lunchroom table all those years ago when I was taunted over something so welded to my sense of self. I still struggle to free myself from that yellow tabletop, my gaze fixed and arms outstretched, and some days I fail.
Richard Gilbert is the author of Shepherd: A Memoir, a story of dreams, loss, fatherhood, and farming. His essays have appeared in Brevity, Chautauqua, Fourth Genre, Orion, River Teeth, and Utne Reader. He has taught creative nonfiction writing and journalism at Ohio State, Indiana University, Ohio University, and currently at Otterbein University, where in addition to teaching essay and memoir writing he has created a popular class around the theme of the relationship between humans and nature.