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: studen...
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