Sr. Joachim ruled supreme over my first grade classroom. I was one of forty little kids in her class at Rosary Cathedral School, and we were terrified of her. She was old and wrinkly, and she wore a black habit which covered her from head to toe. She did not smile and she did not suffer fools. I think if God himself had showed up as a little boy in her classroom, she soon would have had him cowering in his seat, too, just like all us other little kids. When Sr. Joachim spoke, you listened. Her word was law. In September 1960, she took the law into her own hands and committed a crime which changed my life forever. Back then, she got away with it. Today, we call it IDENTITY THEFT. Because when I showed up at school on the first day of first grade, my name was Kathleen. By the time I left, eight hours later, my name was gone.
I was no longer Kathleen. I was Kathy.
And I hated it.
Why me? What happened? Turns out that back in the 60s, Kathleen was quite a popular name among the Irish Catholic families attending our school. How popular? There were four Kathleens (including me) in Sr. Joachim’s classroom. She wasn’t about to put up with that nonsense. How would she know which Kathleen was which? How would she know which one of us four had been naughty during recess? Which of the Kathleens hadn’t been paying attention during spelling drills? Her solution was simple. She lined up the four of us in front of the blackboard and made us count off. Kathleen #1 was the lucky one; she got to keep her name. Kathleen #2 became Katie; Kathleen #3 was known as Kitty; and Kathleen #4 (that would be ME) was henceforth officially to be known as Kathy.
I remember going home and crying to my mother. “My name is Kathleen! I like my name! I don’t want to be ‘Kathy’.” But my mother wasn’t hearing any of it. “I suppose Sister has her reasons,” she consoled me. Way to go, Mom. Thanks a lot. But the world was different back then, and in those days, everyone knew better than to argue with the nuns. No one dared. Not even my mother.
And so the name Kathy stuck. But for the rest of the school year, I held a grudge against the Ursuline nun. Sr. Joachim taught me how to read and write, but she robbed me of my name. I spent the rest of the school year hoping I’d get my rightful name back when I started second grade.
For the next fifty years, I had a split identity. At home, I was known as Kathleen. But at school, in college and throughout my entire work career, the name Kathy continued to dog me. Granted, it was mostly my fault. Though I never liked the name, I eventually got used to introducing myself as such. To this day, my husband calls me Kathy. My friends and acquaintances call me Kathy. But some years ago, when I became serious about establishing myself as an author, I suddenly realized I had a chance to rewrite my own story. Sr. Joachim had robbed me of who I thought I was, but that didn’t mean I should have to suffer for the rest of my life. I could say NO. Declare my freedom to be who I wanted! Establish my identity!
NO WAY was the name Kathy going on any of my books.
And so began my long journey of reclaiming who I am. People often ask, “Do I call you Kathy or Kathleen? What’s your real name? I’m confused.” That’s okay, I know exactly how you feel. For most of my life, I’ve been confused, too. But not any more. At the grand old age of sixty-seven, I finally figured out who I am. My name is Kathleen. That’s what I call myself in my head. That’s the name I prefer. But you can call me Kathy, and I’ll still answer. Sr. Joachim might have committed identity theft, but she also taught me to always be polite.