In 1972, NASA announced the development of the Space Shuttle, Mark Spitz won seven Olympic gold medals, and Serbian stewardess Vesna Vulovic set a world record by surviving a 33,330-foot fall without a parachute. Seriously. You can look it up. It was also the year that my parents got divorced.
Now that I’m older, I kind of see my mother as that flight attendant, free-falling over six miles through the sky and expecting to land on her feet. Amazingly, even though her chances of survival were slim, Mom’s, I mean Vulovic’s record stands to this day.
Not only did Mom end up perpendicular to the ground, she dusted herself off, got a job, and learned the intricate moves of life as a single mother. Quite simply, at a time and in a world where she was supposed to go completely under, she flourished.
Remarried by the time I was five, we left Atlanta, where generations of our family lived, and moved to Louisville, where I ultimately grew up. Back then, fathers didn’t have the same parenting rights that they do today, so with a brand new puppy under one arm and a pack of candy cigarettes in my hand, I waved goodbye to my old dad as my new dad’s sleek, silver Thunderbird rolled down the driveway, through Tennessee (“See Rock City!”), and into a new life.
Over a number of short years, I went from calling my stepfather “Dougie” to “Daddy Dougie” to just plain “Dad.” This wasn’t meant in any way as a slight to my first dad, rather, more of a natural progression of the way things were. From my point of view, I now not only had one, but two fathers, which also meant back-to-back Christmas celebrations, double birthday presents, and the obligatory “just because” gift of the month whenever Dad-Dad came to visit from Georgia. From the perspective of a ten-year old, having two dads was pretty great.
Except when May came and it was time to sign up for swim team. Every spring I was registered, and thereby known to all of my summertime friends, as my warm-weather alias, Stacie Logan. Logan was the last name shared by my mother, Daddy Dougie, and now three-year old little brother. I was the only Whitten in the house, and for all I knew, the entire state of Kentucky.
It’s not that I disliked my pseudo-last name, it just felt kind of strange to be called something else. Like I was pretending to be somebody I wasn’t. But there didn’t appear to be any other fractured families in my neighborhood, and I kind of got that it was easier on everyone not to have to explain why I was different.
As luck would have it though, there was a small percentage of kids from the pool who fed into the neighborhood school, and when fall rolled around each year, more than a few of my swim team peers overlapped and spilled into the hallways between classes.
With logic that only a ten year-old possesses and years of trying to avoid explaining my two last names under my belt, I walked into class on the first day of 5th grade with the whole thing mapped out. Literally. I stayed up half the night before drawing an intricate Venn diagram that described my life as I wanted it to be seen. In case anyone asked, I had proof that I was who I said I was. According to me.
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Channeling Kate from Charlie’s Angels (because I had brown hair, and nobody wanted to be Sabrina, like ever), I became a high-level spy…a black belt…a Secret Agent. It was smart, no, necessary (for reasons that I can’t go into here because you don’t have the required clearance), that I go by an alias in the summer and my real last name the rest of the year.
I needed to protect the innocent, namely, me.
I toggled so fluently between my two last names from season to season that I secretly called myself “superlax” and slid smoothly down Jane Hite Elementary’s halls trying to stay out of everyone’s way. I was small, painfully shy, and wanted nothing more than to go completely unnoticed.
But life often has a different plan than the one so carefully plotted, and it was in home room where the wheels immediately fell off the cart and my secret was once again exposed. Remember, home room was organized alphabetically by last name, an annoying detail that spelled disaster for me year after year.
“You’re weird,” the kid on the other side of the aisle stated unemotionally as we made shrinky dinks to bake in home ec and hang on the bulletin board outside our classroom.
“Ummmm, excuse me?” I whispered, trying my best to mold myself into the shape of my desk and disappear.
“I know you from the pool. You eat raw Jell-O before meets and like to swim breaststroke.”
This was true, my favorite flavor being cherry because it didn’t turn my mouth a radioactive shade of blue.
“Why do you have two last names?” he demanded.
Nothing subtle about that. With the grace of a penguin he went straight for my throat, honing in on my biggest weakness with a laser-like precision, and pouncing.
My attempt to disappear had clearly failed, and I considered sprinting toward the door and running home. But with brand new Dr. Scholl’s and an inclination to lose my balance just thinking about forward motion, I stayed, and put the carefully pre-laid plan that was currently folded up like a cootie catcher in my backpack into action.
“Because I’m a Secret Agent?” I squeaked.
I knew immediately that my delivery was one hundred percent wrong. Lame. Disappointing. Completely anti-primetime T.V. Secret Agents don’t ask questions, avoid eye contact, and start to quiver uncontrollably in the shadow of the enemy. Secret Agents are tough, defeat evil, get contracts for deodorant commercials looped over and over during their forty-plus Nielsen-rated show, and smell good.
“No. You have two last names because you’re a loser,” he snarled, as a strand of spit from the wad of Big League Chew he was blatantly pulverizing between his praying mantis-like mandibles landed on my cheek, and other kids in my class turned to see what was going on.
If you watched as much Saturday morning T.V. as I did as a child, you eventually understood that even super heroes had a weakness, and able to scale tall buildings or not, this kid had just found mine.
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With the Secret Agent thing having produced a big, fat zero and his saliva dripping down my chin, I panicked and went to Plan B, fist bumping myself to activate Wonder Twin powers and spontaneously morph into some kind of prehistoric large-tusked woolly mammoth. So that I could crush him into silence.
But that didn’t work either.
In that moment and others that had preceded it over the years, I was ashamed. Face burning and eyes stinging with tears, I turned away, forcing my gaze out the window until the bell sounded and I could blend back into hallway oblivion. The only thing worse than being made fun of in 5th grade was getting caught crying, and I wasn’t about to let him have both.
As the clock slowly ticked away and minutes disguised as hours stumbled by, I thought about my two dads, and how much I actually loved having each of them at the forefront of my limited view. What I began to realize that day but didn’t fully understand until much later in life, was I was embarrassed about my dual citizenship only because that kid and others before him told me to be. The truth was, I loved both of my dads, fiercely, for reasons that were different, the same, and much more important than holidays or birthday presents. I was a Whitten and a Logan, the mixture of nature and nurture insignificant in the wake of two incredible fathers who were fully invested in my life.
Straightening up to my complete, arguably short height, I turned from the window to look that kid directly in the eye and deliver the best put down any 5th grade girl could ever hope to find.
“Shut up,” I said.
“What?” he replied, turning slightly red, as the rest of the room grew quiet.
“Shut. Up.” I repeated, voice strong, if not a little more highly pitched than normal.
And just like that, he did.
Those words were zero plus two more than I had ever willingly uttered during my entire elementary school career, and even more important, rooted in territory that could get my name written on the board. If only for a moment, I had found my voice, and even at the risk of missing recess, it felt really, really good.
Growing up and forever in life, it’s not our attributes that make us stronger, but more often, our weaknesses. If no one had ever tried to push me down, how would I have learned to stand?
Now, as a married mother of three, I’m not a Whitten or a Logan anymore. I’m a Chadwick. But all of the names I carried through life, the ones I was given, those I was called, and ultimately, the one I chose, mattered. With hindsight a little more seasoned than that of a ten-year old, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t change the past. Sometimes, the things that hurt most in life end up helping us in the end.