I was born while my parents were in Iran for my dad's work. The story goes that my Iranian grandmother told my mother I would not be allowed to leave the country without a Persian name. I was named something else entirely at first until my mother, a teacher, realized that kids would not only be unable to pronounce it, but would call me nausea instead. She told me they chose my name with the intention of changing it to 'Julie' when we returned to the United States. However upon our return, she realized I was a 'Jaleh' and not a 'Julie.'
When we lived in Texas, not only was I the lone 'Jaleh' in a sea of Cindys, Kims, and Michelles, I was as socially awkward and unpopular as you would expect for someone with a weird name. They had hair that flipped back perfectly, I had hair that resembled a brown cotton ball with all the humidity. My dad had an accent, theirs didn't. My family was different, I was different. When you are trying to fly below the radar, different is the kiss of death. I remember begging my mom not to pack my favorite Persian dishes for my lunch because the kids made fun of it.
I could never find my name on license plates at amusement parks or key chains in the mall. My brother who had a normal name could find it on anything — I resented the hell out of that. One Christmas I received a personalized door plaque that read 'Jaleh's Room,' that was one of the most memorable presents I got as a kid.
Roll call with a new teacher was always marked with an uncomfortable silence when they got to my name. I would see them look around the room slightly panicked as the average Westerner isn't familiar with the gender of Persian names. Calling me by my last name wouldn't help because it was no easier. It got so that as soon as they hit the 'T's' and that unmistakable pause I would just raise my hand with a "here." Then, without fail they'd ask in a hopeful voice if I had a nickname. Not one that was officially sanctioned, but the kids had a field day with my name.
Jaleh the Jolly Green Giant, is one particular nickname I remember. As one of the tallest kids in the grade, they felt it was perfect for me. I would have given my left arm to be another Kim, to buy pencils with my name on them on the spur of the moment.
When I was in second grade, I told my parents going forward, I would only answer to the name 'Stephanie.' They looked at each other and then looked at me and said, "No." Undeterred I tried for different names, Marie? No. Caroline? Nuh-uh.
I have spent my life pronouncing my name for people, and explaining its origin. Recently a client asked me if it bothered me when people butcher my name - and truthfully, it doesn't bug me anymore. In fact I kind of like having a different name. No one ever forgets it. Sure, they forget how to say it, but so what? I don't have to distinguish myself from others with the same name by using my last initial. As an adult I've come to value the uniqueness of my name.
My kids have lovely, old fashioned names. They are gender specific and easy to pronounce but they are different enough that there aren't five kids in their class with the same name. I am happy that their names aren't on the top ten lists and I can't find them readily on pencils.
Meanwhile, history repeats itself as they both complain about not being able to find names anywhere. My husband's boss named his youngest son the same name as our son, and I was annoyed. I didn't want my son to be one of a long list of other boys with his name. Ironic that the girl who would have traded a limb to have a popular name has grown into the guardian of the uncommon names.