Monday, July 30, 2012


That year was probably the weirdest year of my life.  It was sixth grade that year, the last year of elementary school, so we all filed into the same classroom to be with the one adult who would be our teacher the whole year.  His name was Mr. Johnson.

"My last name is Johnson too!" said Eddie Johnson.

Mr. Johnson had that look on his face, that look of "I'm 25 years older than you and nothing you can do can hurt me, although nevertheless I am interested in what you have to say right now."

"What's your first name?" asked Mr. Johnson.


"Wow... that's my name too!  What's your middle name?"


"So's mine!  It looks like we're going to be pals this year."

The favoritism was not lost on us.  But we had crazier things to deal with when it came time to take our seats.

Mr. Johnson seated us alphabetically by first name.  Now, it's common enough to have duplicate first names in a class of 25 or 30, but we had a lot of duplicates.  In fact, in our class, there were only 3 first names: Justin, Britney and, of course, Eddie (there was one other Eddie besides E.J., and everybody else was either Justin or Britney). 

A few of us knew each other.  Though our elementary school was big, it would be odd for none of us to have happened to share the same classroom before.  Normally, they would have tried to keep us together as much as possible throughout our elementary years, but circumstances arise to mess with things.  This year, our district was switching to having sixth grade be a part of middle school, and they gave us the option of staying or going, so that threw things off, and for some reason they just mixed us up.

Some of us were used to the names being like that.  Like, three of the Justins had been together before, and two pairs of Britneys were already pairs of best friends.  But for me, it was kind of hard.  I had been an only-Eddie for years.  (Yes, I was the other Eddie.)

So anyway, because of how we were seated, all the Britneys sat in the front of  the room, followed by us Eddies, followed by all the Justins.  Rules are rules.

We did have fun.  Like Mr. Johnson was good at making learning fun.  We built model rockets and stuff like that.

The Justins were all from good families who had chosen to live in cavernous million dollar houses so their kids could go to this school.  Except maybe one or two of the Justins, who, like me, were bussed in so that the rest of the Justins wouldn't make fun of poor people when they got older.  The Britneys
tended to also come from good families who had chosen to live in cavernous million dollar houses for much the same reasons.

Eddie and I didn't really have that much in common, because he got sucked into the world of teacher's pet, he was the good Eddie, and I was the bad Eddie.  But everybody knew, because of one of the more literary Justins, that we were actually the same person, who had been split into his good and his bad side.  I was often the scapegoat, as sadly happens to many students who don't buy into the class culture.  Eddie was virtuous and always wished to ease conflicts.  Literary Justin had a good point.  I used to like school, but this year I didn't.  Could it have been because E.J. had the exact same name as the teacher?

(Had Mr. Johnson been like E.J. when he was in school? we asked him once.

"Well," he said.  "Of course!")

As time went on, because we all had so few names, our class developed an inbred and familial culture.  The Justins would tease each other about liking Britneys.  Like, that's how they said it:  
  "You like a Britney!"  
  "Of course I like a Britney... you think I like Justins?"  
  "Haha... I bet you like an Eddie!" 

  "No way!" 

  Insecure laughter.  Punching in the arm.

And we actually wrote our own school play.  I was the best playwright among them, but I kept my mouth shut, so E.J. and some of the Britneys concocted this musical about doing homework and being best friends.  ("You are my, you are my, you are my bestest Britney!").  We had a tremendous esprit de corps. ("Class," said Mr. Johnson, "Do you know what esprit de corps means?"  Well, no, actually.  "It's when a group has a common spirit.")  I remember I actually got into it myself, and everyone made a big deal out of it.  "Oooh... bad Eddie likes to sing!  Bad Eddie, yeah!  Go, bad Eddie!"  But what can I say?  Esprit de corps doesn't come around every day.

One of us was from a large, frugal family living in Oak Park, more or less my neighborhood too, and he still played Super Nintendo, handed down what seemed to me to be who knows how many times.  I used to go over to his house, even though he was a Justin and I was an Eddie, and we'd play this awesome game called Bill Laimbeer's Combat Basketball.  In that game, instead of populating your team with badly pixelated avatars of NBA players, you can buy cyborgs, so you can have more than one of the same (we wondered if you could have more than one of Bill Laimbeer, the top player, though basically a trophy player since the only thing that made him better than the half-as-expensive Gary Cento was his perfect Aggression stat, which was kind of a bad stat, anyway, but we never got far enough to know since somebody would always walk through the living room and accidentally kick the Super Nintendo, erasing our savefile).  Justin was kind of mad because the player named Justin was so crappy.  He filled his team with them anyway.  As the years have effaced my most cherished memories, I do not know if there was a player named Eddie, and anyway I did not believe in the power of names as much for some reason.  I went for Wolfs and then when I could Mike Alphas.  Being in sixth grade, he eventually followed suit, since I kept beating him, but he'd always keep a Justin on the team for good luck.

The time came for the famous Britney and the famous Justin to get together, and the Britneys were all abuzz.  The Justins made fun of them for liking Justin and Britney, although sometimes the Justins would joke among Justins about how hot the famous Britney was... none of them would comment on the attractiveness of the Britneys that were close enough to do any damage, because that was dangerously close to liking a Britney.  You must never like a girl, you must evaluate her.

The Justins and the Britneys argued about the famous Justin and Britney, and one of the sharper Britneys pointed out that the famous ones first met when they were 11 years old.  And a Justin shot back "Yeah, when they were in the Mickey Mouse Club!" and everyone was like, "Justin L., didn't know you were a Britneyologist..." and he took his turn at the bottom of the Wheel of Justin for a while.

Anyway, before I bring this little time of pointless reminiscence to a close, I have to relate how the school year ended.

About two months before the end of the year, Mr. Johnson said, "Class, I have something special for you.  I think you're going to love it.  It's a new name.  Sam.  Everybody will be named Sam."

We were kind of shocked.  How could he do this?

He could see our nonplussed expressions.

"Okay... what if we put it to a vote?  Is there another name you'd rather have?"

"Chris!" said a Justin.


Good.  It was settled.  We would all be Chris from now on.

I actually kind of liked being Chris.  Because we all forgot about the essences of Britney and of Justin and even of Eddie, and we were all just Chris.  Mr. Johnson called himself Chris Johnson and even among the teachers, he insisted that he be called Chris.  As Chris, we mourned the end of our childhood.

On the last day of class, Mr. Johnson said much the same, putting into words what we had been feeling for the last six weeks of school. 

"Remember, class, no matter how old you are, or how much you change, you can always be a Chris.  No one can take that away from you, not even Father Time.  Because you choose your name, you choose who you are and how people talk about you.  You feel like the old days are slipping away, and you won't see each other.  But your friends are going to be Chrises somewhere else, they're going to do their best to be Chrises, because you're going to be a Chris.  And even if you add another name to your name, like Hermione, or William, or anything, you will always still be Chris at the same time.  The thing that makes you a Chris doesn't take up any space, so you can have as many names as you want."

Everybody cried, because Chris is a girl's name too.

But maybe people cried for different reasons.  I cried because everything that was happening was so weird, and so much had happened, there were so many events to suddenly remember.

Last Man Standing, Author

Bio:  Last Man Standing, resident and native of San Diego, has written a
monstrous "concept album" of short stories entitled WHEN YOU LIVE YOUR