Police years ago pulled over a young woman who rushed through an amber traffic light. "I'm about to arrest this person right now," the irritated officer radioed to a dispatcher. "She's telling me her name is Marijuana Pepsi Jackson."
It's the truth. Marijuana and Pepsi are her legal first and middle names, and the Beloit woman embraces them as a symbol of her struggle to succeed and to help other children overcome obstacles.
No Mary or Mary Jane or Mary Wanda for her. It's Marijuana, thank you, she's told bosses, co-workers and friends over the years, and even wore it on nametags at work.
This tall, striking, self-assured, motorcycle-riding woman is a schoolteacher with a master's degree in higher education administration. Soon, she'll start work on her doctorate.
All of her achievement came despite that smoky, carbonated name. And partly because of it. No one named Marijuana Pepsi gets lost in the crowd.
"Everybody I meet says this: You're nothing like I thought you'd be," she told me when we sat down for an interview in Beloit last week.
These days she goes by Marijuana Sawyer, the surname of her ex-husband from Georgia, where she spent 10 years before returning to Beloit in 2008 to fulfill a promise to make a difference in her hometown. She has a 6-year-old son named, mercifully, Isaac.
Sawyer's mother, Maggie Johnson, picked her name. Her father objected but lost the argument. To this day, a lot of family members and best buds call her Pepsi.
"She said that she knew when I was born that you could take this name and go around the world with it. At the time as a child, I'm thinking yeah, right. You named my older sister Kimberly. You named my younger sister Robin," Sawyer said.
I've tried several times over the years to find Marijuana - the person, that is. When I was a cub reporter at the Beloit Daily News in the early 1980s, there was a rumor around town about an elementary school girl named Marijuana Pepsi Jackson or maybe Jones.
Some people swore that pot and Pepsi were her mother's two favorite things. Others claimed a mix of both coursed through her bloodstream when the child was conceived or born or both. You'll find chatter about this on the Internet.
Sawyer's aunt, Mayetta Jackson of Chicago, clearly remembers when the name was picked in 1972. The newborn's mother and father were products of the post-Woodstock era when reefer was rampant.
"And they would cool off with a Pepsi," she said, which makes you think it's lucky for Sawyer that it wasn't Coke instead. "I thought it was crazy," her aunt said about the name, "but they were such fun-loving people that it suited them."
A couple years later, Sawyer's father, Aaron Jackson, put all that aside and became a Jehovah's Witness. The marriage ended. Young Marijuana lived with her father in Chicago until she was 9 and then moved to Beloit to a much less stable home situation with her mother.
The girl in her torn clothes and wild hair failed in school and was teased about her name, especially in junior high.
"Every single class, the teacher is taking attendance out loud, 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," she said.
Later in life, it wouldn't get any easier when she tried to order tickets over the telephone or fill out paperwork. People thought she was joking, or they wanted to hit her with 20 questions about why she was called that.
Turning life around
Sawyer left home at 15 with a few belongings in a pillowcase and began staying with relatives and friends. She cut out the truancy and started working on her subjects, and her grades shot up.
She gives a surprising amount of credit to her mother for making her resilient and resourceful. "She instilled in me that fighting attitude - never take no, you can do anything," Sawyer said.
By high school, her name was cool to many. "They were like, 'Oh yeah. Man, I wish I had your name. I love that. I'm going to name my kid after you.' I hear that so much and I go, Lord, please don't do that to that child."
Sawyer was the most improved student at graduation in 1990, and she received a $12,000 scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where she studied to be a teacher. She was invited to a White House conference in 1995 and met President Bill Clinton, who swears he never inhaled.
In 1998, she got a job teaching elementary school children in Atlanta. She also sold real estate there. It was the one time in her life that she went by MP Sawyer professionally because the name Marijuana was freaking out the customers and causing her for-sale signs to be stolen as souvenirs.
Over two semesters and a summer, she earned her master's degree from Georgia Southern University and moved back to Beloit with her son in May. She plans to fund a scholarship bearing her unique name.
At the moment she is a substitute teacher at a variety of city schools ("I heard of you!" the students will say), but she's looking for a job in academic advising and admissions at a college or university, preferably near Beloit. She has no doubt that her difficult childhood and the way she tenaciously rose above her name have helped her to reach kids with problems.
Carlton Jenkins was a teacher at Beloit Memorial High School when Sawyer attended there, and he's the principal now.
"They could make a movie about her," he said. "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."
Sad to say, Sawyer is not close with her mom these days, but she's thankful for the many teachers and role models who helped her blossom, even with a name like Marijuana Pepsi.
In case you're wondering, she said she never once smoked the stuff and prefers orange soda.
Call Jim Stingl at (414) 224-2017 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Proof here: http://www.uww.edu/advising/aaec/welcome/staff/sawyer.html