Wednesday, January 2, 2019

What's In A Name: John Kuczaj

(Originally published Nov 5, 2012)
My last name is "Kuczaj".  It's Polish.  It's pronounced "KOOCH-eye".  It was the source of much grief when I was in High School.

One of the most celebrated traits of being an American is individuality.
One of the most lampooned traits of being an American is individuality.
Cynicism kicked in for me at a very young age once I started to realize that everyone is a hypocrite and most people just plain suck.

When I was a kid, going to St. Ferdinand grammar school on the Northwest side of Chicago, if there was a culture of teasing then I wasn't part of it.  By the time you were in the 8th grade, you'd spent 7-8 years growing up with your classmates, and by then it was as if we were a family or sorts - in it together.  I recall meeting some new kids in the neighborhood around 7th or 8th grade who thought my name to be funny and made fun of it.  My reaction was puzzlement and indifference.  I do recall thinking that they were strange and likely not too intelligent for thinking my name was a source of amusement.

Sadly, that entirely appropriate reaction and assessment would change over time.

High school for me was 4 years of agony.  I hated almost every minute of it from day 1.  At first I was excited to be going to St. Patrick High School - then the first day happened.  The first class I had was gym class, where one of the gym teachers / coaches proceeded to call out all the Freshmen and explain to them that they were no longer  "king of the hill" and were now at the bottom of the food chain.
No "Welcome to St. Pat's", instead we got "You are scum".

2nd thru 4th period wasn't any better for me as every teacher insisted on horribly mispronouncing my name to the amusement of everyone in the class and then they had trouble with it AFTER I told them how it was pronounced.  This was my lot for the next 4 years - constant ridicule of my name.  In the 4th period class I was so frustrated and bewildered by then that when I called out the correct pronunciation, I yelled the first part too loud.  The non-athlete bully of the Class of '87 seized upon that and decided that my name came from a Kung Fu movie sound effect.  For the next four years I would frequently be greeted by people who would over-pronounce my name and make karate chop moves.

Looking back on it, the verbal bullying was a defense mechanism and a way to curry favor with the majority of students.  While at St. Ferdinand there were Jocks and Brains and Popular people, none of the groups shunned the others (well...some of the popular kids preferred their own) and there was a mutual respect and sense of community.  At St. Pat's, the Freshman class was quickly beat down several pegs by the staff, so most felt the need to assert some kind of dominance over someone, hence the verbal bullying.

The afternoon classes had more of the same, hitting a crescendo in Pre-Honors English, where the teacher - Mr. Horan - joined in the ridicule.  It started out fine - when he got to my name he asked first.  Scott, the non-athlete bully piped in with his karate routine, much to everyone's amusement. When the laughter diminished, I piped in with "KOOCH-eye".  Horan then said "Oh, like, Koochy Kooch Eye?"
The class roared with laughter and began repeating it so much that the room sounded like the monkey cage at Lincoln Park Zoo.  Horan, to my disdain, looked fairly pleased with his brilliant quip and half-halfheartedly got the class to calm down. It was my sincere hope that Mr. Horan would suffer a very painful, slow death.

My lot was set for 4 years at St. Patrick. Constant put-down based on whatever new name variation anyone can come up with. Any adult looking at it now might say - so what?  It's stupid.  Ignore it.  Indeed, that was my original reaction a couple years prior. However, it was impossible to ignore because it was ubiquitous and it didn't REALLY matter WHAT was being ridiculed, did it?   The message was "I am picking on you because you are weak / different / inferior".  That message was received loud & clear.

I never experienced ridicule at Columbia College Chicago - not once.  The message going into the school was clear to everyone: you are an adult now, act like one.  Meantime, my goal was to break into the TV business and at Columbia that meant either doing technical things (editing, camera, control room) or being a reporter.  I  opted to try the reporting side. No instructor (most of them TV news professionals themselves) ever suggested I come up with a "viewer-friendly" name, but it was a thought I had for a few seconds.

Despite having a hard-to-pronounce and hard-to-spell last name, it was mine.  It was my identity.  To give a fake name would be whoring myself out, and to operate as a journalist with a made-up stage name would undermine my credibility and worst of all - it would be a lie.
So, John Kuczaj it was.  Unique.  Weird.  Difficult to pronounce.  Me.

So, when I started to record songs that I had written with the ultimate goal of releasing the final recordings, I had a decision to make.  Would I release them as solo artist John Kuczaj, or with another name?  Well, since my ultimate goal was to be in a band rather than be a solo artist, I decided that a catchy band name would be the best option - perhaps at some point I could recruit some band members and play live shows under the moniker.  Also, it would be much easier for people to search the internet for info on a catchy band name than my name.  My choice of band name was never in doubt.  It was a name I had in the back of my mind for almost 20 years - but that is a story for another time.  Until then:

John Kuczaj IS Atomic Shop
Atomic Shop IS John Kuczaj