Several years ago I did a stint as academic dean at a small, private, liberal arts women\’s college.
In case it\’s been a while since you\’ve perused college catalogs, the words \”small, private, liberal arts, women\’s\” stand–among other things–for \”caring, personal, and supportive,\” a place where you, the student, will be treated as the unique individual you are. A place where everybody, from the president to the cafeteria ladies, knows your name.
One of my supposedly less-demanding tasks was to call out names at the graduation ceremony as the president handed each senior her diploma. At graduation rehearsal after my first year on the job, however, it became apparent that just reading names in an appropriately solemn tone was not as easy as it seemed.
As I was going down the list, I became momentarily distracted, looked up from my sheet, skipped a line and called the wrong name, not realizing that the person walking across the dais was not the one whose name I had just said.
At a bigger school, say Indiana or NYU, the mix-up would have caused sniggers and cynical remarks along the lines of, what do you expect, in a place this size, how can anybody know who anybody is, and who cares anyway?But at a small, private, liberal arts women\’s college, this was irrefutable evidence that I did not know the name of my graduates.
And if I didn\’t know every student by name, if I was so removed from the very life-blood of the college as to not even realize that I had called a senior in her moment of glory by the wrong name, what kind of caring, supportive, emotionally-present dean (and a woman at that!) was I?
This kind of lapse could be laughed off at rehearsal, but if it happened during the real ceremony, in front of the assembled ancestors (who had paid zillions of dollars in tuition just to have their daughter\’s name skipped by some cold-hearted administrator) it would be a not-minor disaster.
Graduation day arrived, and the graduates in their gowns, the mothers in their Laura Ashleys, the grandmothers in their little hair helmets, and the florid dads in their navy blazers assembled in a dogwood-and-azalea-speckled dell.
Behind me on the dais sat the faculty, hooded and robed and already bored The president stood beaming by the pile of diplomas. I stood behind the lectern, with the list of graduates before me and feeling anxious.
I was anxious because I\’m notoriously bad at names, and though in the preceding two semesters I had met and liked a good many of the seniors, the truth was that I could only put names to at most ten percent of their faces, a ratio that, under the present pressured circumstance and with the students decked in identical caps and gowns, would probably plummet to two percent.
It was crucial, then, that once I\’d called the first name and launched the first senior towards the dais, I keep going down the list without interruption, and not lose my place.
The processional ended, the invocation followed, the president made his speech, a generous donor was honored with a pretend doctorate. And now came the moment everyone in the audience had waited for, the culmination of four years of nights in the library and meltdowns in the dorm and starchy meals in the cafeteria. It was time for me to start calling names.
I jabbed my finger next to the first name and called it. Cheers, cameras, applause. Congratulatory murmurs from the president behind me. I moved my stiffened index down to the next name, and called it, and then the next. I began to feel more confident: the trick was to put my finger by the name and keep it there until the graduate had left the dais, then move the finger down and call the next name. And concentrate.
I was about halfway down the list and doing well. The next name was Anne Marie Louise MacAllister-Provenzano. But as I took a preparatory breath, a fly, drunk on dogwood and azalea pollen, flew into my mouth and down my throat.
The earth stood still. I knew that if in any way I acknowledged, even to myself, the presence of that fly in my trachea, I would go into such a fit of coughing and gagging that it would stop the proceedings at best and cause me to vomit into the nearest azalea at worst. And, if I survived, I would never find my place on the list again.
So, making bowels into heart, as we say in Spanish (hacer de tripas corazon), I pressed my index finger on the page, bore down with my diaphragm, and proclaimed, \”Anne Marie Luise MacAllister-Provenzano!\”
Somehow, I made it to the end of the list without choking, mixing up names, or giving any indication that, though I wished them all well from the bottom of my heart, I had no idea which smiling young face went with what name. As for the fly, it dissolved without a trace in my alveoli.
Whenever life seems hard and my moral stamina feels soft, I think back to that spring day in the dappled sunshine of the dell. I feel my finger pressing down on the paper, feel that fly buzzing in my lungs, and think, I can manage–all I have to do is make bowels into heart.