The Little Black Sheep
Updated: Apr 28, 2019
When I was about eight years old, I developed a slight obsession with names and the art of naming things. I named everything, from furniture, to vehicles, to plants and trees in the backyard. Every stuffed animal or toy I owned had its own carefully thought-out name. There was none of that naming teddy bears “Teddy” or “Bear” or cats being named “Kitty.” The closest I got to a name of that sort was when I named my first stuffed animal “Mouse,” even though it was a dachshund puppy.
My older brother had a developing interest in names as well, but it was slightly more centered around his own inconvenient circumstances. He has the unfortunate honour of bearing a slightly uncommon name with extremely uncommon spelling. His name is Colten, which according to our mother, was spelled with an E instead of an O so that no potential handwriting difficulties or mistakes would connect the L to the T, forever nicknaming him “Cotton,” the least luxurious of the fabrics, next to corduroy and whatever those frumpy cargo shorts are made out of.
While he may have been saved from a lifetime of association with a light but notoriously shrinkable textile, my brother was condemned to a life of rarely having his name spelled right and never finding it on one of those touristy, personally engraved keychains that are all the rage when you’re nine.
Another source of frustration originated from the fact that there was almost no meaning to be found behind his name. We would pour over pocketbooks and cards and personalized coasters, all featuring origin stories and meanings for hundreds of fairly common names, with no luck or hope for poor Colton-With-An-E. When we finally settled for a definition of his name spelled with an O, my brother was again disappointed by the lackluster meaning he was given. After reading names that meant “Gift of God,” and “Mighty Warrior,” Colten received the great honour of “Originating from Coltown.”
Almost as disappointing as my brother’s name was mine. My mother always told me about how I was named after her favourite Bible story, in which a poor shepherd named Jacob works for fourteen years to marry his true love (and incidentally his second cousin) Rachel.
At the time, when I was too young to be bothered or even aware of the themes of family betrayal and polygamous, incestuous romance, I thought my name story was a pretty darn good bit of history to be associated with.
After hearing a historical masterpiece like that one, I had high hopes as to the direct definition of the meaning behind my name. So you can imagine my disappointment when I discovered my name meant “Ewe.”
To my eight-year-old mind, this was the equivalent of being named “Yuck,” or “Gross,” or “Is That Supposed to be Green?” In reality, a ewe is a female sheep, but that didn’t stop my brother from pointing at me and wailing “Eww” followed by fits of laughter and further teasing.
My mother tried to assure me that a ewe was a lovely thing to be named after, because a sheep represented innocence and purity, and some direct symbolism to God. To me it represented eating everything in my path, getting easily confused and lost, and being shaved semi-annually.
From there on out I always sort of kept a personal association with sheep in the back of my mind, despite my attempts to escape this seemingly unfortunate title. I tried to ignore the fact that I had many sheeplike characteristics, from my curly hair, to my extreme naivety and innocence, to my being almost entirely directionally challenged.
My efforts were made even more futile when my stepmother crafted a new association for me, further connecting me to dimwitted yet useful farm animals.
We were talking to some sort of family friends or acquaintances, I can’t remember who exactly now, and my stepmother was introducing me to them.
“Yes, Rachel is very artsy and... different. She is the Little Black Sheep of the family.”
I had no idea whether this was a compliment or an insult, so I simply stood there with a dumb and confused smile on my face, (which in retrospect probably made me look the part). I had never been referred to as a Black Sheep and I was unsure of what this peculiar title entailed.
I later asked her what she meant by it, and she explained rather matter-of-factly that all it meant was that I was the “unique” one in the family, the one who didn’t quite fit in. She may as well have painted the word "misfit" across my forehead and called it a day.
I carried this new title with a sense of shameful and sheepish realization (no pun intended). I wondered if everyone saw me that way, as the Black Sheep. I was the only granddaughter in my father’s family, and while my brother and all my cousins excelled in sports and the outdoors, I excelled in arts and languages. They could all play instruments of some kind, and all I could do was sing— and off-key at that. My friends could all do trendy things with their hair, but my stubborn curls forced me to rock the same hairstyle for life. I became hyper-aware of all of the places I didn’t fit in: amongst my peers, at school, on my sports teams, and even in my own family. I developed an ardent desire to belong, to be “normal,” and I sought approval and acceptance everywhere I went. But all I found were more differences.
I googled the term “Black Sheep” and was disappointed to find synonyms like “odd” and “disreputable” across the pages. I also discovered that historically, black sheep were considered a bad omen because their wool was dark and couldn’t be dyed to a more desirable colour, soliciting less monetary value than their lighter counterparts. Poor Baa Baa Black Sheep from childhood nursery rhymes was trying his darndest to produce wool for the master and for the dame, and in the end, they probably didn’t even appreciate it that much. I felt a new kinship with this beloved and misfortunate character.
One day, as I lamented my title to my brother, he said something that changed my whole perspective on the issue.
“You’re lucky! Sure, you’re different than everyone else, but the thing is, everyone expects you to be different. They have nothing to compare you to so there is no way you can ever disappoint them. You can be whoever you want and everyone will just accept it.”
This realization hit me like an unnaturally fast and hazardous tractor. He was right, and suddenly being different didn’t look quite as bad.
My mind flipped back to the world of Jacob and Rachel, of the Bible and its plethora of agriculturally-oriented metaphors. I thought of all of the references to God being a shepherd and all of humankind being sheep (and trust me, there are a lot of them).
I really think Jesus was onto something, because to be honest, people really are like sheep. We follow leaders, and each other, and trends, and traditions, and pretty much anything else that dictates the on-goings of life with some authority. We often feel the need to be “normal,” to fit in and be accepted. We seek approval and validation and by default, uniformity. We follow the forces that lead us, but often these forces are only created by those who dare to stand out.
I had always taken words like weird, and artsy, and eccentric as insults, when really, they were the keys to my freedom, justifications for being conventionally unconventional.
I’m no special snowflake, but in a world full of sheep, I think it’s kind of nice to be considered a black one.
I think it’s time to inject a little bit of optimism back into life, weave some laughter into our wool, and bring a little bit of light into the previous darkness. Embrace a bit of difference, and learn to accept your flaws and quirks the way they are, the good and the baaad.
Forget a glass half empty, I would rather live three bags full.