When I was fourteen, my family and I moved to Lepanto, Arkansas. Before that, we lived in a suburb of North Little Rock called Sherwood. We were only there for a year and a half. Before that it was Brinkley—also a year and a half, and before that was Greenwood, which was three and a half years. I went to three different schools in three different towns, which were in three different states (Florida, Arkansas, and Texas) for my first three years of school. That’s seven different schools I had to have a first day of. Seven different groups of students and teachers that I told my name to. Seven different populations who mispronounced or misspelled it. And seven different places where I had to correct them. Again, and again, and again.
Before we moved, I experienced my first real heartbreak. He was one of the preacher’s sons at the church we started going to after my dad got fired from his church in Sherwood. Timmy was six years older than me—yes, you read that right, and no, my mom and dad didn’t know about it until several years after the fact—but dating is probably too formal for what we had. We hung out at youth events. (The church was so young it hadn’t started a college ministry yet.) We talked on the phone. He gave me a ride home from church a few times, and we held hands in his pick-up truck. But then some of his college aged friends found out what had been going on and told him that he needed to break it off because I was too young for him. We’d been together for a couple of months by then, and I was devastated.
The night we loaded up the moving truck I ran away from home. I lit out with no plan at all, just ran out the back door after dinner when no one was looking, so I didn’t made it very far. I was hiding out behind a giant rock at the park in the middle of the neighborhood when I heard Mom calling for me. She’d been driving around for an hour looking for me, and it had gotten dark. I hid in the shadow of a gigantic rock as she called my name, “Jaaaannnnaaaa … Jaaaaannnnaaaaa … JAAANNNAAA, her voice growing loud and more desperate with each repetition. I stood there debating whether or not to respond when she called out again “Please come home, Janna … Our family needs you … I need you.” Then, almost as an afterthought, “You’ve gotta come back. I know you won’t believe me, but we’ve just gone to war.” I finally came out for curiosity’s sake, not because I was ready to go back home. Where was home anyway? It certainly wasn’t the town we were headed to, but I wasn’t old enough to stay behind by myself in the place that we were leaving.
Sometime during the next few days of driving, unloading, unpacking boxes, and watching scenes from Iraq on PBS, I decided to change my name. I don’t remember my thought process at all. I just know that the first time someone introduced herself to me at our new church I told her to call me JB. JB was a nickname that my Papaw had always called me, shortening my full name of Janna Beth to two initials, and the rest of our family called me that on occasion. Now I wanted that nickname to become my real name. I still don’t know all the reasons why I made that decision. Perhaps JB sounded like a stronger person than Janna. Maybe she was the kind of girl who couldn’t be hurt by stupid boys, who didn’t care that she had moved to a new house and a new town, again. The kind of girl who didn’t need to try and be pretty, or vulnerable, or kind. The kind of girl who didn’t want anyone to know her real name, or the real person behind it.
For the next three years JB was all that anyone ever called me. I signed it on my homework pages. JB was listed beside my pictures in the school yearbooks. Everyone in our small town, my coaches, my teachers, and my friends all took it for granted that I’d always had that name. Some boys at school liked to change the initials around and tease me, calling me, well… you get the idea. Of course, I’d been so sheltered I didn’t understand the joke they were making; I just knew by the way they smiled that it must have been rude. So I’d yell at them to stop, then they’d snicker and walk away.
In December of my senior year, another preacher’s family moved to town. Bro. Tacker was the new pastor of the smaller Baptist church on the outskirts of town and soon became friends with my dad who preached at the First Baptist church downtown. He also had a son named Jason; who called me Janna when we first met. I figured it was because his cousin Ashley had told him about me before. Ashley lived an hour away, but her dad was also a pastor and we’d gone to church camp together for three summers so she’d heard Mom and Dad slip up and call me Janna on occasion.
A few weeks later Jason and I started dating. We spent nearly all of our free time together for the next eight months—right up until I went away to college. Jason was two years younger than me, so he was the one staying behind when we finally broke up. I was heartbroken again, but several months later I realized Jason deserved credit for helping me think of myself as Janna once more. After three years of going by the tough, short moniker “JB,” I was finally able to see myself from someone else’s point of view, and I kinda liked what Jason saw. Jason thought I was pretty. Jason wanted to hold my hand. He wanted to hug me, and kiss me, and dedicate cheesy songs to me on the radio. Jason had been quiet and shy around me when we first met, but he was the first boy to ever tell me that he loved me and wanted to marry me someday. (Timmy had only ever made jokes about us being married.) I loved Jason back, but not in a forever after kind of way. He was kind and caring and I appreciated how he looked after me, and almost always treated me like a lady.
When I got to college I guess I wasn’t ready to give up on hearing my first name spoken from the lips of another boy so I told everyone I met that my name was Janna. Two years later I was dating my husband, whose friends occasionally called him JB. John is one of those common names that causes people to develop codes to help differentiate one John from another, and people don’t always want to tack on a last name, so John Barber had been gradually shortened to JB. When I told him I’d had that nickname when I was growing up, he smiled and told me that I looked more like a Janna to him. But on occasion, when he’s feeling flirtatious or sentimental, like he wants the world to know we have the kind of connection that goes beyond first names, John will call me JB.
And I kinda like that, too.