Savannah, Georgia was a very conservative town in the mid-eighties, an unlikely location for an art school. The Savannah College of Art and Design, or SCAD, was founded only ten years prior to my first day of classes. The town wasn’t sure what to make of the 1,200 or so art school kids loitering in its perfectly manicured squares.
I didn’t know what to make of anything. Starting a quarter late, I didn’t have the benefit of a freshman orientation or a campus tour; besides, SCAD’s “campus” was Savannah’s historic district. The old armory served as the main facility, with the under renovation building next store providing additional classroom-studios.
Renovations were performed by students in the school’s historic preservation program — real world experience that those of us in other majors were sure was a hustle. The school purchased depressed real estate all around the historic district — the old jail, the theater — and the historic preservation students paid tuition for the privilege of fixing them up. Sweet deal.
The administration offices were a couple of squares over from the armory, and dorms were scattered all over the historic district. Andi’s was a small block of apartments that faced the D.A.R. cemetery, but most of the girls lived in a beautiful old building on Pulaski Square: high ceilings, hardwood floors, the whole bit. The guys were packed into an old commercial building that felt more like a makeshift hurricane shelter than a dorm.
Anyway, the old armory was where the action was, so my first morning as an art school student I stumbled around its hallways looking for my first class: three-dimensional design. I sat at a drafting table in the back of the room and shut my mouth.
The class filled in around me. Pretty girls, middle-aged women, intense young men with paisley shirts and asymmetrical haircuts. Eventually the instructor arrived.
“Listen, I’m not going to do this every day,” he said. “Whether you come to class is up to you, but the registrar’s office needs to know if you showed up for the semester so I have to take roll today. Eugene Anderson?”
“Oh, Trish. Welcome. Anthony Carmichael?”
Down the roll he went, scratching off the no-shows and noting the nicknames. I doodled nervously, not sure what else to do.
He was a college professor who could care less who I was. We weren’t entering into a long-term relationship here. Nobody in the room cared who I was. They were strangers, and so was I. Nobody gave fuck-all whether I had a nickname, and they never would.
“Here,” I said, and like that I was a new person. My life lay in sedimentary layers: To the extended family we left when I was seven I was Jimmy; to the childhood friends and nuclear family I left 48 hours ago I was Jim; and from that morning, based on nothing more than an apathetic “here,” I have been James Stafford.
Almost immediately I detested the nickname “Jim,” likening it to a used Buick salesman, a white bread and mayo guy with two kids and a straight eight down at the lot everyday just to make the note on his modest little ranch house.
Jim was a box, a trap, a collection of compromises and decisions made on my behalf. Jim was the name chosen for me, the life chosen for me. It was the history I wanted to forget. Jim was the father who left when I was nine and only his body came back. Jim didn’t like me too much.
Who was James? I had no idea. He was brand new: new city, new apartment, no friends, no enemies. No history. I was as clean and white as the drawing table at the back of Pete’s classroom. It was time to start drawing myself.