What’s in a Name?

by Tyler Sjostrom

Among the early memories of my school-age life are a few that stand out for no particular reason – bread bags in my snow boots, the rusty, red playground slide that would probably be nicknamed “The Lawsuit” today, and thinking the Mr. Men book series was the height of literary culture. But one takeaway from my time in Mrs. Lutz’s kindergarten class remains vivid only because it became a recurring theme for the rest of my youth – no one, not the parents, other kids, or even the teacher, had any success pronouncing my last name.

Suh-jo-strum. Suh-jah-strum. Frequently, just Tyler S.

And so began a tenuous relationship with my own last name, where I spent more time correcting or, more often, just shrugging and forgiving the all-too-common mispronunciations. But the mistakes were only half the battle; there were also the nicknames that seemed to flow like Ecto Cooler from those who could pronounce it but chose not to. Tie-your Shoe-string and Snowstorm were only mildly less popular than being called the male body part that only slightly rhymes with Sjostrom. (We’ll allow your minds to compute that one.)

By the time I arrived in high school and realized during my semi-illustrious athletic career that the PA announcers weren’t even going to try to pronounce it (“Tyler Sorenson on the reception…”), I’d pretty much reached the uncomfortable conclusion that I actively disliked my own last name. I didn’t like that it meant “ocean stream” in Swedish. I didn’t like that I was apparently a distant relative of a famous Swedish actor. I really didn’t like the “J” that tripped everyone up like an uneven sidewalk when they saw it.

As I graduated into adulthood, I cared less about the childish taunts and tantalizing rhyming potential of my surname. It was just part of me, not unlike my distaste for sitcoms or love of Jeopardy! But one event made me realize I’d been losing my name’s value amidst all the confusion.

When my first son was born, my dad let out a whoop and a howl: “The name lives on!” And then he reminded me what he meant: up to that point, all the Sjostrom men of my generation had only had daughters. And while there could potentially be more Sjostrom boys scattered in the future, there would be no doubt now that the name would continue. Dad’s sense of relief and joy was palpable.

And I, after all the hemming and hawing of my youth, suddenly saw things his way. The Sjostrom name had never been mine to debate or despise or dismiss – it was his, and his dad’s, and so on.

My dad grew up as a descendent of homesteaders in a town literally called Swede Township. They talked in Swedish around the dinner table and in their country schoolhouse. No one there had any trouble pronouncing it, you can be certain.

When I met my wife over a decade ago, she had no trouble pronouncing it either. She’d had a college roommate with the same “Sjo” to begin her name, and I was smitten from the minute she didn’t choke on that first syllable. Today, she teaches her students to pronounce her last name – “Go to a show. Strum a guitar” – in the same way we’ll teach our two young sons.

Our boys may also experience the same growing pains that I did. They may wish they could just have an easy-to-say name like their friends. But they’ll just have to help all they encounter to say it right.

Go to a show – stum a guitar. Like an ocean stream, the name lives on.