24 May 2014

Last of the Jims

I can think of three dates that determined the outcome of these 43 years I have spent so far on this wonderful green globe:
  • 22 May 1997 I became a father.
  • The weekend of 3-7 May 1991 Destiny thrust me into the great love of my life
  • In January of 1984, just a few weeks shy of my 13th birthday, I moved from Amesville, Ohio, to Portland, Tennessee. 
Uprooted in the middle of 7th grade, I was planted in a new school, a new community. The experience marked me for life--my best friends and my boyhood were boxed up back at home--a place I tell my kids was "the Magical Land." My awkward teenage years and the longest chapters in the unwritten book, JD's Book of Blunders, would take place in a strange land of Tennessee.

A story from those first days in Tennessee came back to mind this week, when I learned that my classmate at Highland Elementary, James "Bobo" Ayers, had passed away due to cancer. Like me, he was 43.

I have always had a problem with my name. Growing up, my family called me "JD," which always seemed like a baby name to me. To make things worse, my mom tells the story that the name had been given to me while I was still in utero, given by a man who assumed I would be "Junior Dittes."

When I was ready for 1st grade, I came up with a plan. I was going to leave "JD" behind and become "Jimmy." I remember writing "Jimmy" over and over on my wide-lined, elementary writing book, curling the y's this way and that. It didn't phase my parents--nor did it seem to matter to the other seven kids in the one-room Adventist school I attended.

By 2nd grade I felt ready for "Jim," and this name stuck for the next six years. "Jim Dittes" caught on in my schools, first in Bartlett, Ohio, later in Parkersburg, West Virginia. By 4th grade, I had left "JD" behind, save for my stubborn family.

The three Jims in a class photo from 9th grade
Then came the move to Tennessee. I entered Mr. French's classroom at Highland Elementary as "Jim Dittes." There were about 24 students, ten of them boys. I learned to my chagrin that there were already two Jims: Jim Litchfield, Jr., who went by "Jimmie," and Jim Ayers, who went by "Bobo."

Mr. French was a smart teacher, and he was quick to find a solution. "We'll just call you, 'J.D." he said. "That's a nice name."

I slumped into my desk and frowned. The baby name was back. I couldn't escape it. The J stood for me, and the D was for Doomed.

Jimmy, Bobo and I became friends. Jimmy was gregarious, the shortest boy in our grade, eager to please the big guys. Bobo was soft-spoken with a broad grin and a slow loping gait on the baseball diamond or the football field. I was moody and loud. We never became best friends, but we got along well.

I would move onto other names. "JD" followed me through high school and into my freshman year of college. My 2nd year of college, I studied in England, trying to recover "Jim," but one evening my British great Aunt Marjorie asked me, "Jim? Why do you go by Jim? James is such a splendid name!"

That was the moment that "James Dittes" was born. It would become my professional name--the one my colleagues at work would use without getting too personal. Later, when I moved first to Arizona and then on to Albania, I would pick up the name "Jay." (In Albania, my name was often spelled "Xhai.") 

Today, I am James online and at work, and I am JD at home and at church. If I pick up the phone, and someone asks for "Jim" or "Jay," I can quickly get an idea about which part of my past they are calling from.

That's the odyssey of my name that began that January afternoon in Mr. French's 7th & 8th-grade class. But it isn't the whole story of the Jims of the HE Class of 1985.

I moved back to Tennessee in 1998 to await a visa to an overseas job I had been given. The following spring I received the tragic news that the first Jim, Jimmy Litchfield, had died in an auto accident, leaving behind a young son. I was teaching at Highland Academy that year, and I had just taught John Donne's Meditation 17. "Ask not for whom the bell tolls," Donne had written, and now it was tolling for my friend, not yet 30.

And now, this week, the second Jim has passed. 

"Any man's death diminishes me," Donne wrote later in Meditation 17. It's true, and I hope that it doesn't seem trite that I seem so hyper-focused on the deaths of boys--of boys named "Jim"--of boys named "Jim" who were in the 7th grade at Highland Elementary in 1984.

I never imagined that I would be the last of the Jims.

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