When they arrived in the United States, as we know, many immigrants shortened or changed their names. Sometimes this happened because of clerical errors or out of patriotism, but often it was because of a simple wish to start a life, in a new place, with a new name. Although my family has been in this country for generations, I had a similar renaming experience in a small Girl Scout summer camp in southeastern Pennsylvania. The camp was called Camp Echo Trail, an exotic name, I thought -- a name full of possibilities. Far away from my home in a small Pennsylvania city, there was something about the camp's lush woods. The sounds of the cicadas humming and all that heat and sun inspired me to make a change of my own. On the first day of camp, I decided to rename myself. It wasn't something I thought about; it happened on a whim. "Everyone at home calls me Nikki," I told my counselor that first day, and the name stuck. I chose Nikki, not only because my middle name is Nicole, but because my baby sitter at the time was named Nikki and I thought she was one of the coolest, prettiest and kindest girls I had ever met. I don't know if it was the new name that changed things for me, or the freedom of being away from home, or the kindness of the female role models around me, but somehow that summer I was able to effectively connect with other girls my age. For the first time in my life, I felt truly accepted among my peers, without question and without having to struggle to alter my behavior. Before I went to Camp Echo Trail that first summer, I was Tanya: a loud eight-year-old with low self-esteem, a tendency toward the dramatic, and a bad habit of saying the wrong things at the wrong times. When I left camp at the end of that summer a part of me was Nikki: a fun-loving, self-possessed kid with many new friends -- effortlessly, it seemed, if only for a few weeks. Actually, things didn't magically change in my life at home after that first trip to camp. I still struggled with many of the same problems, but every summer for the next eight years, I went back to camp and became Nikki again, full of confidence, with a strong sense of self that has stayed with me into adulthood, even when I call myself Tanya.
Copyright 2005© Tanya Underwood
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