The Name Sayer

Portland High School, Portland, Maine

Since 1987, my wife Marge has taught at Portland High School, one of the most diverse schools in the country. For the last 15 years or so, she has read the names at graduation. It’s a formidable task because each graduating class includes students from every corner of the world. A typical class includes Bosnian, Cambodian, Chinese, Congolese, Croatian, Ethiopian, Hispanic, Polish, Russian, Rwandan, Serbian, Somali, Sudanese and Vietnamese names, along with the more familiar French, Irish and Italian. It’s a United Nations of names, and this year’s class was no exception.

As an added complication, some families, after being in the U.S. for a while,  have partly or completely Americanized their names. This is why Marge spends hours and hours in preparation. Last year a Cambodian girl whose first name was Touch (pronounced Tooch in Khmer) corrected Marge. “Nah,” she said, “it’s just Tuch, like ‘don’t touch that’.”

This year, however, a Cambodian girl with the same name wanted it pronounced Tooch. The class also included a student from a Polish family named Dziedzic. Marge consulted with a colleague who speaks Polish and learned how to say the name more or less in Polish, something like DJUH-djeetz. “Nice try with the Polish,” the smiling student said at graduation rehearsal, “but we just say DEEZ-ick.”

During Marge’s fierce battle with ovarian cancer through the winter, one of her goals was to be able to return to school in time to read the names at graduation. Pretty much everyone at the school was rooting for her because of who she is and also because there really isn’t anyone else in the school willing or able to tackle those names.

Just before Marge returned to school this spring, the principal met with a group of teachers to discuss scholarship recipients. In identifying the students, he apparently mangled many of the names. He later reported to Marge that after the meeting about five concerned teachers each approached him privately with the same urgent question: “Is Marge going to be back in time for graduation?”

3 Replies to “The Name Sayer”

  1. The photo is a stark reminder of a number of things, my 33 year public school teaching career among them. We were privileged to have a student population that reflected the almost exact population ethnic demographic of the nation as a whole. We also had a wide socio-economic range, although it was tilted toward the upper middle class. I can honestly say that most of the time I only saw a bunch of truly beautiful kids of all descriptions.

    Chiefly, the photo reminded me of the only time I set foot in that particular school (PHS) when I sat there for the SATs in May 1963 of our junior year in order to be able to apply for early decision to college. It was a scary place for me then for a couple of reasons. I don’t envy Marge’s task, but more power to her.

  2. Jack,

    It’s not a scary place now—unless you’re afraid of butchering somebody’s name. Marge loves the school, the kids and the long, long history of the place. This was the 188th Commencement. In Alumni Hall, there are display cases with memorabilia including graduation programs dating back to the 1860’s.

    Portland High’s current student population is the new face of America. With rare exceptions, people get along remarkably well, although PHS continues to get rotten press coverage from the Press Herald.

  3. What a formidable task. I used to pity the media when they had to pronounce one foreign name but to have to memorize the names of a graduating class is daunting. Marge deserves everyone’s kudos and, perhaps a big bouquet, for her courage.

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