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The Daily Tar Heel

With a name like Sarah, you learn the importance of differentiation early on.

At UNC — a place that promises the resources of a big pond but the intimate feel of a puddle — there are 406 of us saturating the class rosters. And that only includes those well-adjusted individuals who make use of the silent ‘h.’

Every day, the problem confronts Sarahs (and Johns and Annas). How to respond when those familiar syllables float across the crowded lines at the bottom of Lenoir?

Do you turn and risk the embarrassment that you are not wanted? Or do you wait for more clues, for the third and then fourth enunciation, a tug on your shirt sleeve?

Establishing ownership of one’s name has preoccupied me for years. As a child, I opted for more authoritarian means. I refused the friendship of other Sarahs and closely patrolled my group of friends to keep imposters from infiltrating.

Not for me the formality of “Sarah Bufkin” or the cursory “Sarah B.” I would inhabit the privileged position of the Sarah.

I have grown up since then. My friend group is now inundated with Sarahs, women whose talent and individuality never fail to astonish and captivate me.

But I have not left this problem of naming behind. (In fact, I have been known to accost unsuspecting Sarahs with questions like “Do you identify with your name?”)

As a wise professor once told me, a name is a powerful thing. We make sense of our world through the process of names, the groupings of categories and identities that our society has passed down to us like coils of a collective genetic code.

Yet to name is a dangerous activity when wielded too quickly and without thought. For it draws boundaries around an entity and then guards those limits as if it were a fortress. Or a shrine.

As poet Hart Crane put it, “Moonmoth and grasshopper that flee our page/And still wing on, untarnished of the name/We pinion to your bodies to assuage/Our envy of your freedom.”

Our names are pinioned to us by our parents, but they have been defined by the slow sedimentation of generations settling one atop the other. Some names may seem to fit close to the skin; others scratch or swing their weight wildly from one shoulder to the other with each step.

Another poet provided a much-needed outlet for my naming angst. The most interesting part of a simile, she told us during a workshop, is not what aspects of two objects or events are similar, but in all the myriad ways in which they differ and pull against one another.

That tension, the pulling apart of moments set in relation, turns the field for the poem to thrive in.

I am now content to be a Sarah in a cadre of Sarahs — one with an infectious cackle, one with an outrageous sense of humor, one with a stunning mastery of words. Names necessarily fail to capture who we are. And they should.

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