When I was merely 15, I was forced to make a significant decision that would change my life. I had to decide what role I wanted my family to play, how I wanted to project myself to the world, and who I would define myself as. What decision incorporates all of these aspects? On August, 11, 2005, during the summer between my freshman and sophomore high school years, I decided to be adopted by my stepfather.
The most noticeable result of this decision was the change of my last name from Hayes to Zelenka. I did expect the obvious question of why I did it. I will admit my apprehensiveness over answering that question, because the truth is that my biological father was not being a dad at all, in contrast to my stepfather, who has been there for me since I was four. To me, changing my name meant finally leaving the abuse I faced during visitation at the Hayes household and affirming the happiness, support, and love of the Zelenka home. Perhaps my then seven year old brother said it best when I told him that we now were both going to have the same last name. His exact reaction was,” Phew, that will be so much easier now.”
The big moment was on the first day of school of sophomore year, when teachers did their first roll call, triggering an inundation of inquiries about my new last name. The real question was whether or not saying that I was adopted would be enough to get a simple , “Okay, cool” or whether I would get that, “Oh…” shortly followed by the “Why?” . I’ve realized that the most common reaction is a combination of the two with the “Oh cool…” with a delayed, “Wait, what…?” about a week later. Despite how hard it is to answer, I’ve learned that the best way to answer is to be honest and direct. People are more understanding than I originally gave them credit for.
Starting sophomore year with a “Z” name exposed me to the reality of alphabet discrimination. I learned what it is like to be a “Z” instead of an “H,” as I was relegated to the far back recesses of alphabetically arranged classrooms instead of front and center. I also discovered that a special bond exists between people with last names beginning with the trailing letters of the alphabet. One of my teachers said “We W’s and Z’s got to stick together, Zelenka.” No one ever asked me to name bond when I was an “H”. Somehow, I also lost my first name with the switch. Before, teachers addressed me as “Kristen” or “Miss Hayes”. However, my new last name, with its three syllables and seductive beginning consonant, apparently became sufficient. I am now simply called “Zelenka” by teachers and friends alike.
Being adopted was the hardest decision I have ever made. Even though I was leaving an abusive relationship, I was also jeopardizing other relationships on that side of the family. But instead of losing who I was, I’ve found who I am. I’m my completely own person. My unique history and valuable experiences help me understand relationships and have made me a stronger, more confident individual.