This past weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran an interview with Google’s CEO, who suggested that teenagers should be allowed to change their names when they become adults to expunge their records of juvenile indiscretions and start over–at least as far as their searchable public files are concerned. Here’s the blog post that got me thinking about the topic: Google CEO Suggests You Change Your Name to Avoid His Permanent Record.
One of the people commenting on the post asked if it’s okay “to make all the transgressions you want in life. Because apparently changing your name is like waving a magic wand that makes your past disappear. How utterly convenient!”
Or is it? Having just returned from my high school reunion, I realized that leaving behind youthful indiscretions is really difficult, because people (as well as Google) also have very long memories.
Many at the reunion had dramatic changes in their lives. The cheerleader who had been married five times, the quiet, unassumming guy in the corner who had just completed his parole for having 626 guns in his house, the buck-toothed shrinking-violet who had transformed himself into a Vegas lounge singer all mustered the courage to show up and explain to the rest of us how they had changed from the people they had been since we last saw each other decades ago.
If each of us had the option–and even obligation–to change our names when we became adults, would we have acted differently in high school? Would we have taken more risks or said and done things if we had known we wouldn’t be held accountable? Or did our previous lives give us the platform to morph into the people we became, simply because we were internalizing the lessons learned from juvenile peccadilloes?
If we can wave a magic wand and erase our past lives, how will we prove to anyone that we’ve matured? How will we decide what values we’re invested in, if we can change them like a new set of clothes? And who is the real Jane Doe: a teenager, a young adult, a middle aged-person or the person each of us becomes as the culmination of a life well-lived–without pages from our biographies ripped out to protect the guilty?
There was one person at our reunion who had already embraced this concept of changing names between high school and adulthood. Alison, whom no one recognized, was the subject of a yearbook search after the gathering. There was no Alison in our senior yearbook, but there she was in our junior yearbook–except that her name was Al. Only she/he knew the true implications of privacy vs a fully searchable public record and the personal cost and bravery it took to embrace her juvenile and adult personas. Despite dramatically starting her life over as an adult, Alison carried her past with her unabashedly–regardless of Google (or old yearbook) search.