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A dean's thoughts on honor (and burden) of reading names at commencement (essay)

A Naming Opportunity
May 24, 2013

Commencement: T-minus 6 weeks.  Into my hands, my assistant Jan places a black three-ring binder.  In it, in 14-point font, triple-spaced for easy reading, are the names the registrar has determined should be read at commencement: students who are expected to complete their requirements either by the end of the semester or, in a few cases, the end of the summer. My hands begin to shake. The notebook feels like it weighs 12 pounds. It becomes, in an instant, The Notebook.

How I ended up with the job of reading the names at commencement is one of the many quirks of history that make up Wheaton College, the small liberal arts institution in Massachusetts where I work. My predecessor did it to great acclaim during her 23 years in the post I now occupy (dean of students), so when she retired and I stepped in, I am not sure anyone gave it a second thought. "You read the names at commencement!" I was told repeatedly as my first year wore on. At first I was baffled, then a little freaked out.  At every other institution I'd been at, the dean of students was lucky to sneak into the faculty procession, or occasionally get onto the platform if none of the academic deans minded.  But his or her part in commencement, the most academic of academic ceremonies, was minimal.

I think what worried me most was a singular experience I had witnessed at another small liberal arts college where I once worked. The new provost was given this task, and so thoroughly butchered even the easiest names (I think she suffered from severe stage fright, because she was normally not an inarticulate person) that she never quite recovered her credibility with the community and was gone after her second year. What I learned from that disastrous day was an obvious lesson: when a student has chosen a small college where being known is an expectation, when a family has paid a small fortune for a student to attend a small college, there is simply no excuse for a mispronounced name at the most public of ceremonies.  

It doesn't matter if that name is seven syllables long, is Chinese, Thai, Croatian, Arabic, if it looks utterly different than it sounds, if the middle name is so obscure and tongue-twisting that you think it had to have been the result of a bet the parents lost, or an inheritance they hoped to secure. You'd better get it right.

And thus it begins.

Five minutes after receiving The Notebook, I send out an e-mail to the senior class, asking them to send me the phonetic pronunciation of their names, even offering examples of popular faculty whose names they will recognize, or to call the "pronunciation hotline" I created two years ago that allows them to record their names for me to hear.  I sign the email, "Dean Will-yums."

Seven minutes after receiving The Notebook, the first of about 75 e-mails arrives in my inbox.  In my e-mail, I have encouraged them to challenge me, that I am pretty decent at accents, and if they give me their best description of the way their name is pronounced in their non-English language, I will do my best to master it. They take me up on my offer. Students with complicated names take great care to coach me, giving me examples of words their names sort of rhyme with. One student with the last name Dikicioglu writes, "It's like three men's names:  Dicky, Joe, Lou."

Over the next few weeks, the e-mails continue to trickle in. They often involve a back-and-forth exchange.  "What about your middle name?"  I ask, if they have not mentioned that in their pronunciation coaching.

"You don't have to say it."

"But what will make your parents happy?  Will they want to hear it?  It will be printed in the program."

"No one will care."

But someone may care. Someone may take my omission of a middle name as an indication that Wheaton College does not know, or care, about their student. They will be so stung by this apparent lack of singular affection that they will discourage their neighbor's child from attending Wheaton. They will ignore future requests for donations. They will sneer whenever their student mentions his or her alma mater at a family dinner. "Those people!  $50,000 a year and they didn't even care enough to read your middle name -- your beloved grandfather's name -- at graduation!  You should have gone to Brown."

And so another source of anxiety:  My failure to read a student's middle name may be the first step on the road to the college's eventual ruin. Or maybe not.  I try not to think about it over the next several weeks while I wander around campus, Notebook always in hand, trolling for seniors.  

"Any seniors here?" I call out, looking around a dining hall at lunchtime. Some will tentatively raise their hands, nervous to be noticed, so close to graduating, by the dean. I plop myself down at their table and open The Notebook, seeking clarification on the names of anyone within earshot.

My anxiety isn't helped by the number of people on campus who know this is my role and ask me during the few weeks preceding commencement, "How are the names this year?  Any really tough ones?"  I smile and nod. There are always tough ones, given our international student population, but I know those are often the least treacherous.  

As anyone who has done this particular task can tell you, concentration is key -- that I must focus so thoroughly on the task in the moment that a circus clown could walk up on stage in big floppy shoes and plant a kiss on the president's forehead while I’m reading, and I wouldn't notice. I would stay zeroed in on The Notebook, lest I lose my place, or mispronounce "Robert," or God forbid, skip "summa cum laude" after someone's name.

It's for this reason that I rehearse the list, dozens of times.  I close the door to my office, or place The Notebook on my bedroom dresser, and begin.  I work from start to finish, becoming more comfortable with the tongue-twisters and more familiar with the rhythm of the names that follow one another.

This leads to an interesting set of exchanges on campus.  At this point in the semester, when I see a senior, I don't say, "Hi, Conor."  I say, "Hi, Conor Peter O'Riordan."  Hilary, whom I've known since her first semester, is "Hilary Isabelle Lahan," but in my mind, I see the word "Lay-in", which is how she's coached me to pronounce her name.  

When an off-campus acquaintance tells me her niece is graduating from Wheaton and gives me her name, I immediately spout off "class gift co-chair," one of the officers whose positions place them at the front of the line and the first pages of The Notebook.

The Notebook rarely leaves my sight, annotated as it is by hints and tips and alternate spellings and accent marks that only I can make sense of.  Once in a while, Jan gently pries it from my hands to make an adjustment requested by the Registrar -- usually a name to be removed.  I twitch until she hands it back to me.  If she has had to replace a page, perhaps because a student has indicated they will be there after first saying the opposite, Jan will have carefully recreated the pencil marks I have next to or above the names on that page.

Commencement:  T-minus one day.  We hold a rehearsal attended by most of the seniors who will be in line the next day.  They are sleepy -- some almost catatonic – after a week of Senior Class festivities. Wheaton is almost 180 years old, and if there's one thing we've got down, it's Senior Week. The week begins with the White Glove Brunch (no, no one wears them, but the seniors do get dressed up and show off their best table manners), then comes hoop-rolling, later in the week a very formal dance at a Newport, RI, mansion, the next night an event where seniors circle the pond with lit candles; yes, the quaintness that one expects from a college that started off in 1834 as a woman's seminary, guided by a firm and formal Victorian woman who loved to garden.  

So by the Friday morning of the rehearsal, my seniors are exhausted.  Trust me -- the amount of partying during the week at these and less formal events is more than Eliza Wheaton probably ever enjoyed in her lifetime.   And so like zombies they file into the field house and collapse into folding chairs.  Pomp of the Living Dead, I think to myself.

We hold rehearsal in the field house, though Commencement itself is held on the Dimple (the concave "quad" in the center of the campus).  The field house allows us a bit more environmental control, necessary when one's commencement ceremony is the academic equivalent of the Beijing Olympics’ Opening Ceremony.  The students are alphabetized and sorted into groups with underclass leaders holding large signs on posts.  On each of these is a vegetable (don't ask; it's just a Wheaton thing), and seniors are assigned to their groups in alphabetical order.  Fiddleheads here.  Artichokes there.  

This is necessary, I have come to learn, because the seniors are distracted and barely conscious and seem to have forgotten their alphabet.  The more alert underclass students become border collies nudging them into the correct order, which, because they approach the stage from two different sides of an aisle, means half must be in reverse alphabetical order.  Being in the correct order is critical, because Wheaton is one of the few remaining colleges to hand their graduates an actual diploma on the stage.  Students cannot be out of order, or diploma chaos ensues.  

And so during rehearsal they are checked off, instructed, checked off again, and then called to attention by the faculty marshal who tells them they will now hear their names and cross the stage. The underclass sign-holders step aside and the groups become one line circling the field house’s indoor track  I step to the microphone and tell them, "I'm going to say your name.  If it is not exactly what you want to hear me say tomorrow, please stay after we're done. Form a line up here, and tell me what you want to hear."

I begin, and can see on their faces that even in their sleepy state, they are listening keenly.  At the conclusion of the ceremony, 20 or so wait to give me further directions. "Can you say my middle name, even if it's not on my diploma?"

"Of course," and I write in their great-uncle's four-syllable Slovakian name.

"Can you not say my middle name?"

"Of course," and I cross out "David." Damn.

Our Chinese students will offer additional pronunciation coaching, prodding me politely to utter sounds that have no equivalent in English.  I try, and try, and finally they smile, bow slightly and thank me, walking away wondering what it will sound like tomorrow.

Commencement: T-minus one restless night. I read the list four or five more times, working hard to get the new information correct.  At this point, I know what name will come up on the next page as I turn it.  I think about our registrar telling me that on a listserv, a group of her colleagues often discuss name-reading at commencement, and that a number of institutions have hired professional readers. Others have the student read their own names.  Still others have the student hand an index card with their name on it to a reader, who gets an immediate lesson in pronunciation before the student crosses the stage.  

Wheaton has... me. I know that I am only one link in a chain of deans going back almost two centuries, and this is my lot, as well as my privilege.  I go to sleep clutching The Notebook. Okay, not really, but it's within sight as I drift off into fitful dreams of prairie dogs in black robes, hyper-alert, to hear the name their parents bestowed upon them years before.  When I awaken in the dark, I whisper one student's name, "Oludamilola Osinbajo," over and over like a quiet incantation and fall back to sleep.

Commencement: T-minus 45 minutes. The line-up begins. I wander around, clutching The Notebook, checking a few final pronunciations, negotiating the use of middle names one last time.  

It's time to go.  We process around the Dimple and up the center aisle, and as I take my seat on the far right side of the platform, Jan appears at ankle-level, and I hand her The Notebook.  Her job is to make final adjustments -- remove students who have not shown up, add students who have shown up unexpectedly, while another staff member quickly shuffles the diplomas in the carts at the back of the platform to match list and diploma.  

For the 30 minutes this takes, I feel my pulse race. I imagine different reasons The Notebook doesn't get returned to me:  Jan is kidnapped.  She gets a call that her husband won Powerball and she chucks it all for a life of ease, right at that moment, leaving The Notebook on an empty chair. She... and then she appears below me, alongside the platform, and one last time hands me The Notebook.

The ceremony has been going on for a while -- honorary degrees, remarks by Wheaton's  president, the class president, I don't know what else.  Honestly, the circus clown could have come and gone.  I am as focused as I am capable of being, locked in like Junior Seau on a quarterback during the snap count.  

And then it is time.  I stand up and step to the podium.  I look out at the faculty in the seats behind the seniors. Several make exaggerated  gestures of looking at their watches. I learned in my first year that the faculty would chide my predecessor to keep the pace up. They apparently have the same expectation of me.

I hear nothing other than the blood circulating in my skull. I open The Notebook and turn to the first page, trying not to feel the weight of Wheaton history on my shoulders. I am unsuccessful at that, but I take a deep breath and find the first name.

The faculty marshal summons the first row of students and, holding the first one at the bottom of the ramp, looks at me. I nod. I begin. "The Officers and SGA Executive Members of the Class of 2013. Benjamin Wentworth Fagan, President." I get through the dozen officers and start the alphabetical list.  I look to my right again as the faculty marshal holds the first in the alphabet. I read, "Rasheeda Nayyar Abdul-Musawwir." She crosses in front of me and smiles, a familiar greeting between me and this very accomplished senior.  For the briefest of moments I find myself thinking about her.  And then snap to attention. Focus!

I find the rhythm two pages in, my practice paying off.  I read the easy ones, the hard ones, the Latin honors.  I pause for a sip of water.  The students walk past me at the podium, some of them smiling at me, others staring at the diploma in the president's hand, just eight feet away, like a golden retriever stares at a tennis ball.  I pass the Ds, the Js, the Ms, my confidence building as I go. I hit the Rs and know I'm rounding the final turn.  The Ts, The Xs. The homestretch.

After almost 400 names, I turn to the last page, a lone name: "Benjamin Lewis Zucker." The crowd cheers, the seniors whoop and dance at their seats. I sit down, still clutching my notebook, now with a small "n."

What was so hard about that? I ask myself. I can't wait for next year.

Bio

Lee Burdette Williams is vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College, in Norton, Mass.

 

 

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