I was Wayne for about a decade—the first ten years. Wayne White, or sometimes “Wayne the Pain.” That nickname never really bothered me and whenever someone called me weird I’d reply, “Thanks.” With a smile. I took this as evidence I wasn’t boringly normal.
Wayne is my middle name. I’m named after my dad, but they wanted to avoid confusion around the house so I was never called Jerry there. Or anywhere. Just Wayne. My Uncle Larry was always Uncle Larry, but I found out later in life he was named after his dad John, and Larry was his middle name. A southern roots thing maybe. To this day I’m not Jerry to my family, only Wayne. Or Jr.
Anyway, we moved when I was in fifth grade. I enrolled as Wayne White. But about a month into my time there, without running it by anyone, and without a lot of deliberation that I can recall, I instructed the teacher and the rest of my class to call me Jerry. Because it was my name. They did, and I’ve been Jerry to the rest of the world ever since.
I had a lot of “behavior problems” in elementary school. “Wayne the Pain” was more than just a convenient rhyme I think. I struggled to improve my behavior. A lot. It was a bit of a long slow torture. I couldn’t keep my head down and mouth shut. I’d say funny things that made everyone, including the teacher, laugh, but then I’d say other things that would only make my classmates laugh while the teacher fumed. Or I’d say things that would make only some of the kids laugh and maybe one or two mad. Or sad. And sometimes I’d say something funny and no one laughed.
Every grade of elementary school I’d start off the year sitting at my desk in the ordered rows amongst my classmates. And every grade would see me a few weeks or a month later, sitting at my desk, in a corner, removed from everyone. That or removed from everyone, but adjacent to the teacher’s desk. Every single year—new grade, new teacher, even new school, and still I’d get banished from the group. Changing my name to my real name…maybe I hoped this would help me turn over a new leaf. Teachers always used that phrase with me “turn over a new leaf.” I knew what they meant by it, but I always imagined an actual leaf being turned over, revealing a slightly brighter underside. But every time I tried to turn over a new leaf, I’d revert to my bad behavior soon thereafter. But now I’d moved to a new school—all new people, a fresh start, the perfect time to make a lasting change. I don’t remember thinking about all that when made the name change, but it seems a likely motive. Plus it always just bugged me a little, that I went by my “middle” name. Almost everyone had a middle name and no one else went by it, to my knowledge.
The change was successfully made and a couple weeks later I was at my desk in a corner. Banished again. No longer “Wayne the Pain,” some tried to replace it with “Jerry the Fairy,” but that didn’t stick. Names are funny things. We make a lot of choices in our lives, but we come into the world with this label on us that few of us ever alter. Sure, marriage changes a lot of last names, but few ever alter their first. My first name is still my first name—I just made a choice to stop going by a nickname.
For years after I usually signed my name “Jerry White,” though it looked strange since that’s my dad’s name. It seemed more me when I’d write “Jerry White Jr.,” but that wasn’t quite right either. I guess it felt odd that I was shortening my name, so for a number of years I signed as “Jerry Wayne White Jr.” I even bought www.jerrywaynewhitejr.com and used that for a few years before I felt I should keep it simple. I mean, I think my full name might be the best version, but it’s a bit long. So I’ve dropped the “Wayne.” For now at least.
So all these years later, I’m still not 100% comfortable with any of these options. When I’m with family or people who met me through family, I’m Wayne—and it feels correct. Occasionally a relative will hesitate, confused, then introduce me as Jerry and it seems so awkward hearing that come out of their mouth. In that moment, with family, I don’t feel like I’m Jerry, I’m Wayne—that name I’ve dropped from daily usage. Yet in other situations I’ll be with friends who learn that I’ve also gone by Wayne so they try it out and it just doesn’t work. Not for them and not for me.
But most of the time I am nameless, a collection of experiences and thoughts and dreams and biology. With either no one around to address me or someone who casually calls out “hey” or “dude.” So it’s not like I have an identity crisis. I just have a somewhat complicated relationship with my name.