Samilee Moody. Yingxin Ye. Elijah Zebulon Bernstein-Cooper.
On Saturday afternoon, Jayne Niemi will read these and 530 other names before the crowd at Macalester College’s commencement. Her voice will be louder and her pulse quicker, but she will have practiced the names many times.
Niemi, the St. Paul college’s registrar, scrutinizes each syllable, delighting in an annual duty others regard as a chore. She imitates recordings of the international students, calls students for a “test drive” and, on the tough ones, consults the linguistics department.
“It’s their day,” said Niemi, whose own name (NEE-mee) was read at Macalester’s 1979 ceremony. “It’s big and exciting. They have all these people around them. I don’t want to inject any sour notes in there.”
The degree of difficulty is heightened by the small college’s large international population: A total of 66 international students will walk across the lawn this year.
“I want it to be a day when they’re recognized for being who they are — and that’s their name.”
She is rewarded with hugs from graduates, letters from grandmas and, when he gave the commencement address in 2002, praise from Garrison Keillor. “He’d say, ‘Oh, good one,’ when I got a hard name,” Niemi said, blushing. “I was kind of proud of that.”
From butchery to mastery
Before she took charge of the names in 2000, Macalester’s provosts stumbled through them. Even they admit it was brutal.
“All of us provosts really butchered the students’ names,” said Dan Hornbach, now the Dewitt Wallace Professor of Biology and chair of Environmental Studies. He would practice, of course, “but I never seemed to get them quite right.”
So Hornbach offered Niemi the job. “She has been fabulous,” he said. “You can see the students who have very difficult names, their faces just light up when she gets to them.”
One student, in the class of 2008, wrote her a note thanking her “flawless” pronunciation of his and other international students’ names. “It means a lot to me,” he said.
During hours-long ceremonies, often under a beating sun, Niemi rarely stumbles. If she does, it’s on an easy one — “an Anna Smith,” she said. Maybe a Kara, whose name is pronounced CARE-ah, rather than KAH-rah. After a dozen people with middle names, a student without one can throw her off.
Credit to Chisholm roots
Niemi majored in French and has studied some Spanish, Italian and German. But she attributes her ear to growing up in Chisholm, Minn., with grandparents who gossiped in Slovenian and Finnish.
“Everyone around was speaking Croatian or Italian or this, or that, or the other thing,” she said.
She knows little Slovenian — “just a few swear words,” she laughed — but her feel for its rhythm helps her pronounce the names of international students from that part of the world. Chinese names are perhaps the hardest for her, she said.
If she’s unsure, she does her best to “give it the voice it deserves,” she said. “Even if I get it wrong, I come close enough so they know I tried.” In practice, her speech deepens and slows. She averages 7 seconds per name, according to a colleague’s calculation.
During a rehearsal Thursday, the soon-to-be graduates wrote pronunciation tips on index cards. Some hints are more helpful than others: “Rye like the bread.”… “Mints like on your pillow.”… “Just like you’d expect.” Niemi will bind, notate and flip through them Saturday.
Niemi took the microphone at rehearsal to urge students with names that are frequently mispronounced to wave her down. “I try really hard to get this right,” she told the group gathered in the fieldhouse.
Samilee Moody, a physics and astronomy major, carefully penciled her pronunciation on the card: “Samm-ill-lee.” People often mangle her name, she said. “I’ve gotten So-MA-lee, Sam-a-LEE, Sam-ILL-ee. Just anything people can think of. It’s strange that it causes so much trouble.”
So she “really appreciates” Niemi’s efforts, she said. Niemi leaned in, looking at Moody’s card.
“SAM-ill-lee,” Moody said.
“SAM-ill-lee,” Niemi said in perfect imitation. “Got it.”