Oregon Writing Project: Brainstorm about Nicknames

As I do my homework to prepare for the Summer Institute of the Oregon Writing Project at Willamette University, I thought I'd post my attempts here. Today's prompt:

Brainstorm- a list of all the nicknames you’ve ever had, thinking back to childhood, camp, sports and family get-togethers. Try for a baker’s dozen or so and word process the list. Any patterns revealed? Focus on a particular nickname that you loved or hated. When you say it, where does it carry you?

Benjamin Douglas Gorman (when in trouble)
Ben Kenobi
Benedict Arnold

I’m not sure if it’s something intrinsic to my name, or to my personality, but based on the list of nicknames I can remember, it seems I don’t earn many. The story of how I shot down “Benji” as a young child has become a legend in my family; though I don’t remember the incident I have heard it recounted many times. Some older person in my mother’s congregation in a small town in Michigan called me Benji during the coffee hour one Sunday morning, and I spun on the person and shouted “Benji’s for dogs!” The nickname wasn’t used again, and I guess I decided this strategy might work for other things, because the next time I was served re-fried beans (which I hate) I shouted, “Beans are for dogs!” and wasn’t forced to eat them again. Missing from the story is the fact that my parents must have laid down the law about these outbursts at some point after that. Otherwise, I’d be going around yelling that my pet-peeves are “for dogs” and wondering why that doesn’t make them go away.

Ben Kenobi and Benedict Arnold were attempts at insults when I was in the early years of elementary school. Of course, no one really knew who Benedict Arnold was, and as a Star Wars geek I probably wasn’t properly offended by the Ben Kenobi reference, so they didn’t stick.

My favorite of the bunch was coined by my wife. Back in college, my now-wife, then-girlfriend Paige would often come over and hang out in my dorm room, where a group would gather to watch TV, eat Ramen noodles, and even occasionally do homework. I have a tendency to hover. Rather than simply sitting down, I pace when on the phone, and sometimes I prefer to stand behind the couch to watch TV. I also move quietly, especially when barefoot. Once, while watching TV, Paige looked up and found me standing behind her, watching over her shoulder. I startled her pretty badly, and she shouted that I was like a “Ninjaben”. That stuck, and she still calls me that sometimes out of nowhere.

The next on the list was an attempt at an insult which failed marvelously. While walking across the courtyard at Newberg High School, where I worked as an Ed. Assistant before becoming a teacher, a student I didn’t know shouted it at me. I think it was an attempt to make fun of me for being bald by associating me with the singer Moby, but I was instantly reminded of the kids in first grade trying to get a rise out of me by calling me Ben Kenobi, and my face lit up with delight. The student didn’t know that my first name was Ben (even the students in our classes rarely know we have first names) so his joke was more clever than he could imagine. I beamed at him and told him I liked that one, and he looked crushed. After that I used it as a password for my email for a while.

To some extent, the same thing happened with Pelón. My Spanish speakers called me that, first sheepishly, waiting to see if I’d be offended. I had to ask around to find out that it means “baldy” and is slightly derogatory, but I like the sound of it. Unlike “baldy”, the strong emphasis on the accented last syllable makes it sound like a particularly powerful title, like the nickname people might be forced to use for a mustachioed South American dictator to express feigned affection. I loved introducing myself as Pelón on parent-teacher conference nights; the parents would be shocked that their kids called me that, and when I told them that I didn’t mind it immediately made them more comfortable with me, since, despite the sound to my gringo ears, it made me less of an authority figure. After introducing myself as “Mr. Gorman, the one your kids call Pelón,” to a room full of parents, most were instantly on my side, though a few did come up to me and tell me I should not let them call me that, as it isn’t respectful enough. I’d then tell them that their particular child didn’t actually use that nickname for me, as he or she had obviously been raised better, and those parents would like me, too.

I heard my full name a lot, as a kid, when I’d misbehave. Apparently that didn’t work, because, in college, my then-girlfriend (now-wife) would use it the same way when I’d cross the line and say something tactless in public. As I do that a lot, my friends heard it all the time. One friend, Phil, confided in me that I was the only person in the whole school whose middle name he knew, for precisely that reason.

Ultimately, I suppose that makes my full name the nickname that suits me best. Ninjaben might sound cooler, Pelón might be useful, and Moby-Wan might be the most clever, but I have to concede that my full name is the one most often demanded by my words and actions. So when I inevitably cross the line and make some crass joke, feel free to scowl and hiss, “Benjamin Douglas Gorman!”

But don’t call me Benji. Benji is for dogs.