In 2009, Jim Stingl, a columnist at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, finally caught up to her. It turned out that, yes, Marijuana Pepsi really was her legal name, and her mother had chosen it over her father’s objections.
“She said that she knew when I was born that you could take this name and go around the world with it,” Vandyck, who at the time was using her ex-husband’s last name, told him. “At the time as a child, I’m thinking yeah, right. You named my older sister Kimberly. You named my younger sister Robin.”
Pepsi, her middle name, was what many of her close friends and family members called her. But in school, and, later, at work, she was Marijuana Jackson. The rumors about the name’s origins weren’t too far off: Her parents were “products of the post-Woodstock era when reefer was rampant,” the Journal Sentinel reported. Her aunt, Mayetta Jackson, told the paper that cannabis was everywhere in 1972, the year that Marijuana was born, and after smoking, the couple liked to cool off with a sweet, fizzy can of Pepsi.
“I thought it was crazy,” Mayetta Jackson said of the name, “but they were such fun-loving people that it suited them.”
The couple’s marriage disintegrated after young Marijuana’s father became a Jehovah’s Witness and eventually moved to Chicago. Meanwhile, back in Beloit, the preteen struggled with a difficult home life and relentless teasing because of her name.
“Every single class, the teacher is taking attendance out loud,” she told the Journal Sentinel. “And as they slowly get down through the J’s, I’m just like, here it comes. ‘Marianna? Marijuana?’ And all the students turn to see who it is.”
But by the time she was in high school, the tables had turned. Other teenagers told her that they were jealous of her name, and wanted to name their own children after her. “I hear that so much and I go, Lord, please don’t do that to that child,” she said.
Her life was improving in other ways, too. At 15, she left her unstable home situation behind, taking just a few possessions in a pillowcase. Relying on family members and friends for a place to stay, she rededicated herself to school and stopped cutting class, and saw her grade-point average skyrocket. At her high school graduation in 1990, she was named the most improved student and awarded a $12,000 scholarship to the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, the Journal Sentinel reported.
“They could make a movie about her,” Carlton Jenkins, who taught at Beloit Memorial High School in the 1980s and later became its principal, told the paper. “I could almost write a book on Marijuana myself in terms of a young student who’s been so resilient and taken even her name and made it into a positive. We’re so very proud of her. She’s exactly what any kid in America needs to know about someone who can truly make it if they put their mind to it.”
When the Journal Sentinel profiled her in 2009, Vandyck had returned to Beloit after a decade in Atlanta, explaining that she always intended to move back to her hometown so she could make a difference there. In the intervening years, she worked as an elementary school teacher, met President Bill Clinton at a conference at the White House, completed a master’s degree in higher education, became a real estate agent and learned to ride motorcycles. She also had married and given birth to a son, whom she gave the relatively common name of Isaac.
Throughout it all, she insisted that people call her by her birth name, refusing to take the much easier route and go by Mary or Mary Jane, like so many well-meaning people advised her to do. She told the paper that her name was proof of how she had succeeded despite all the obstacles. It was a lesson that she hoped to pass onto other children who were struggling, she said, adding that she intended to get her doctorate and find a job advising college students.
She went on to do exactly that. In his column this week, Stingl wrote that he had checked back in with her a decade after his first story about her went national. The timing was fortuitous: She had just received her PhD in higher education leadership from Milwaukee’s Cardinal Stritch University in May. Appropriately enough, her dissertation, “Black names in white classrooms: Teacher behaviors and student perceptions,” analyzed how black students with distinctive names are treated by educators in predominantly white settings, and how that treatment affects their academic performance.
Now remarried, Vandyck lives on a three-acre hobby farm near the Illinois-Wisconsin border where she raises pigs and chickens with her husband, who owns a welding business. Together, they have four children, including her teenage son. She told the Journal Sentinel that she has never once consumed marijuana, and, for that matter, doesn’t even drink. She’s not a big fan of soda, either.
As she predicted a decade ago, her full-time job involves helping underprivileged students. She works as the director of a program at Beloit College that serves students who come from low-income backgrounds, are first-generation college students, or have disabilities. On the side, she works as a life coach and sells real estate.
She’s also been saving up money for a scholarship she plans to endow for African American students at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater who are the first in their families to go to college. Naturally, it will be called the Marijuana Pepsi Scholarship.
Vandyck still has yet to meet anyone who shares her name. As she told the Journal Sentinel, it comes with certain downsides. There are the constant LinkedIn requests from marijuana growers. A police officer once threatened to arrest her, thinking she was lying about her name. Filling out routine paperwork or placing an order over the phone invariably leads to a prolonged conversation and a battery of questions. She learned long ago to use her initials, MP, on her real estate signs, because the ones that said Marijuana kept getting stolen.
Despite all that, she doesn’t seem to resent her mother for not picking something more conventional.
“I’ve grown into my name because I am a strong woman,” she told NBC’s “Today” show in 2009. “I’ve had to be.”
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