When I changed my name at the age of 9, my mother was in a fury. She screamed, she cajoled, she threatened me with the strap that hung in the broom closet. But I would not budge. I had had enough.
Unlike my baby brother, Marvin Aaron, who seemed to have more of everything, I had only one name, Regina, unless you counted my Jewish name, Rivka, and I couldn't very well go by that. For my outside life in English, I needed an English name.
Regina was the name of my mother's mother, one of two grandmothers killed in the war before I was born. I was sorry I'd never known my bubbeh and certainly meant no disrespect, but Regina Miedwiecki? My name had more "eyes" than an alien.
At school, the boys would call me Regina Saskatchewan. Perhaps my prowess as a tomboy fed their need to taunt me. I was fairly big for my age, strong too, and so would often best them at baseball or climbing up a tree. For a while, I even thought I was a boy but the gang I ran with seemed to know better. When sufficiently provoked, I would wrestle a tormentor to the ground and make him say Uncle. Then, one day, all the boys I knew suddenly learned a new word.
It rhymed with Regina.
I was stumped, unable to take them all on. Besides, my breasts were beginning to bud and somewhere inside my tough little body, which always sported bruised knees like merit badges, a swarm of hormones were gathering. Their onslaught dashed any hopes of my ever becoming a boy.
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Two women influenced the change of my name.
Giselle was a kindly crosswalk guard, a large French-Canadian woman who always had time for a few words as she led me across the intersection. She called me Régine. I loved it - that soft sound of the "gee" as it slipped through her teeth. I wished I was French so everyone would call me Régine, but it was 1957 and in Montreal, little Jewish immigrant girls did not sport French names.
It was the movies, however, that helped me to redefine myself as they did for so many others of my generation.
Here's a historical footnote. It wasn't easy for a kid to access the movies in Quebec in those days. You had to be 16 years old because of a law passed in the aftermath of a 1927 fire in a movie house where dozens of children had been trampled to death.
But I loved the movies and being tall, with a mature face, I managed to pass for 16 if I smeared on some lipstick and wore my mother's high heels secured by a pair of plastic rain boots. The ticket seller at the Rialto Theatre was so bored she barely looked up when I slid her the money for my first grown-up movie.
Pal Joey was a musical love triangle starring Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak and Rita Hayworth. I had no clue what was going on. There was a lot of mushy stuff but I loved the beautiful women and the music.
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It was the second movie I saw that gave me a new lease on life. It was called Trapeze, a circus story about a love triangle (a big theme that year), starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and the new Italian sensation - Gina Lollobrigida. With no Italians in our neighbourhood, the name was thrilling as it combined both the exotic and the familiar. If I dropped two little letters, it could be like a nickname. I would no longer have to carry the weight of a dead grandmother I'd never known. I could have something of my own, something new and soft and round - a name that slipped out softly between the teeth.
And, if I had a new name, the boys would have no reason to tease me. I would be reborn. Not Regina Saskatchewan Miedwiecki who couldn't play baseball with the boys any more. No, I would be Gina and hardly anything at all rhymed with that!
So I changed my name.
I told my parents, my brother and my friends that I would now answer only to Gina. Miss Pederson, my Grade 3 teacher who, coincidentally, hailed from Saskatoon, was unimpressed with my request. She continued to take attendance every morning by calling out Regina Miedwiecki and every morning, I refused to respond with the mandatory "Here." Instead, I sat in silence until she came to my desk and politely requested that I go stand outside the door.
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After two weeks of passing me in the hallway every morning, Mr. Stewart, the school principal, led me into his office for a long, heart-to-heart chat. He was a handsome man, tall with grey at the temples, a fatherly demeanour and much beloved by all the students. He patiently waited for my explanation as to why I insisted on being called by this new name.
What could I tell him? That I wanted to belong, not feel like I was alien? That I wanted to be myself? Should I tell him that I used to want to be a boy but I wasn't so sure about that any more?
Finally, after a painful silence and with some chagrin, I told him I didn't like being called Regina Vagina.
I don't remember his response or even how he looked. I was probably looking down at my hands when I said all this because I loved Mr. Stewart and I was certain he'd be angry with me.
The next day, however, when Miss Pederson started roll call, my heart soared when I heard her call out: Gina Miedwiecki.
As for my mother, she never did beat me with the strap. Not for changing my name, anyway. She simply ignored my new name and called me Rivka for the rest of her life.
Gina Roitman lives in St-Colomban, Que.
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