“Will You Say Your First Name For Me?”

I don’t know how it happened, but three years ago, I started reading names at graduation.

Have I ever mentioned that I have stage fright?  Honest to God, the anxiety kills me stage fright.

Three years ago, I clutched the podium to keep my hands from shaking.

Last night, I fell into a rhythm of syllables and sounds and curled my voice around phonemes that I likely messed up but really tried my best.

Reading the names at graduation is EXHAUSTING.  Starting Thursday morning, over 36 hours before graduation is even going to begin, I was anxious.  And I don’t mean just butterflies in my stomach but true anxiety.  The kind where focusing is almost impossible and keeping my mind off of Nigerian names and how to say a child’s name that is Korean and I can’t wrap my tongue around her middle name is impossible.

Starting on Sunday, I practiced names daily.  I paced my kitchen, my classroom and read name after name.  I was able to read over 400 names in ten minutes.

Let me tell you something, I could have graduation done in 15 minutes.  Just give the junior marshals stacks of graduation covers.  I call out names, the junior marshals fling the covers like frisbees, and we are finished.  

I started working on the names about a month ago.  Squeezing out minutes from my planning periods, I wandered the halls and invaded my colleague’s classrooms to meet the students.

I have bothering my colleagues.  I hate interrupting their classrooms and distracting their students so that I may learn how to pronounce names.  I feel so rude and hypocritical because it drives me crazy when I’m on a roll and just hitting point after point and then…the classroom phone rings and I’m distracted.

Adult ADHD is not a fun thing sometimes.

My colleagues are gracious, supportive, compassionate individuals.  They understand that I want to do more than just read the names. I want to say them as correctly as possible.  Thanks to years of living in Germany, I have a pretty good German accent which actually translates pretty well to some other languages or at least speaking patterns.

Not all.  I can not hit the Asian or Middle Eastern names worth a bean.  Which horrifies me.  I feel terrible because no matter how hard I try, I just can’t formulate the syllables in a way that sounds remotely authentic or true.  I sound so very….white.

But I feel so obligated to try and learn their names.  My daughter’s name is Gaelic and no one, and I really mean no one, who reads her name reads it correctly.  The first A is hard and nasal when it’s supposed to be soft and gentle.  Her last name is butchered as well.  And I have comforted the Girl so many times when her name was mispronounced and she walks, humiliated, across the stage to receive her award, to graduate from elementary school, to be honored.

For her, I do my best to read the names as correctly as possible.  Because in five years, she should be graduating from high school and if all goes well she will graduate from the high school where I work which means I will read her name.  For once, her name will be pronounced correctly and she will be honored appropriately.

It takes me the better part of ten hours to meet each student and learn each student’s name.  Or at least try to learn their names.  And then comes the practice.

I once read through the names while waiting at my county’s jail while my son took a tour with his Boy Scout troop.  Felt really weird to sit in my car and read names while pretending that I’m really not uncomfortable because other people would park close to my car and either look at me reading the names or stared at me sympathetically.

I once read through the names while my daughter was in a Girl Scout meeting.  I sat outside on the pavement, enjoying the warmth of a late spring day when a flock of thirty birds lifted from the power lines where they were sitting and started divebombing me.

I’m serious.  Divebombing.  And trying to carpet bomb me.   Lots of poop.  Really gross and really ominous because it made me wonder what God was thinking about me reading the names.

Last night, I was panicking.  I had left my extra set of names at the school and didn’t have a chance to practice.  At graduation practice the day before, I messed up so many names, learned at the last minute that I had said things all wrong.  Names I knew backwards and forwards were stumbling blocks and I was close to tears.

I didn’t sleep well Thursday night into Friday morning.  I hosted a video conference with my dear friend, Bob Okaji (You have to read his poetry at O Around the Edges).  I was so nervous about the video conference and graduation that I walked around my classroom, playing with my fidget spinner.

Yes, I own a fidget spinner.

I played with my fidget spinner the entire ride to graduation.  I flicked the edge and collapsed my finger against it, halting the velocity.

Whirr….click.  Flick…whirr..click.  Flick.  

I surrendered my spinner to my friend so that I would not play with it during graduation (yes, I would be that person), found the graduation cards, and started reading.

One by one, I went through the names and the fear fell away and I stopped being afraid.  I stopped being afraid.  I stopped being afraid.

Instead, I went through the names, wrote myself a couple of notes, wrote “Love you!  Mean it!” on the cards of the students who were in the dramatic productions I helped direct, and left.

I went downstairs to see if I was needed to do a mike check.

I took pictures with some of my students.

I drank water.  A lot of water.  Which means I went to the bathroom a lot.

And the stage fright somewhat returned but never fully.

Instead, I found my place in the line up.  I walked down the causeway.  I stood for the processional and while the speeches were made, I read the names one more time.

Until Emma Mazing spoke and I wept.  I wept while she talked about The Diary of Anne Frank.  I wept because she is preparing to go to Clemson and won’t be in next year’s play.

I wept because I love her and the other students with whom I have spent such wonderful times either in the classroom or on the stage.  And then Emma Mazing finished talking.  She turned the pages to the next speech and left the stage to return to her seat.

Three more speakers and my time at the microphone.  My time to spend an hour going from name to name, smiling at the kids, reassuring them that I knew who they were and was going to do my best to honor them.

I made mistakes.  Two students came up on stage without their cards.  I knew one of them and said his name with confidence.  The other child leaned over and whispered his name.  I think I said his name.  I’m not certain.  I did my best.

One child handed me his card and I read the name and then he told me, “That’s not my name.”

I looked at the name, read the name in my mind, checked it against my memory…and then whispered “sorry” which was broadcast to the world.

I’m sorry that I didn’t read your name, young man.  I read the name on the card.  I did my best.  I asked you six weeks ago for your first name.  I asked you to tell me your name.  I asked you to correct me when I am wrong.

I truly did my best.  You flashed me a look of disappointment and walked across the stage, was congratulated by our principal, accepted your diploma cover, and then walked away.

Next year, I will read the names again unless something changes.

In two years, I will read my son’s name.  I will do my best not to weep, to sob, to do an ugly-cry.

In five years, I will read my daughter’s name.

Leaving behind my stage fright and finally feeling the edges of my confidence fill me was wonderful.  Seeing my face on the jumbo television screens was disconcerting.  But keeping my focus on the pink and blue notecards and reading name after name, feeling the histories slide through my fingertips, being a part of 450 success stories….

now that’s wonderful.

Now, where’s my fidget spinner?

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