Enterprise High School Assistant Principal Karen Mills will call the names of her last group of seniors across the stage on Thursday, May 23.
Every year Mills spends about 50-60 hours preparing for graduation by asking students how to say their names and then practicing every night up until the day of graduation.
It’s a tradition she says, she inherited.
“When I got here, I took the place of Beverly Sublette—she was the assistant principal doing it before me—and she gave me that advice,” Mills said.
Mills’ “practice notebook” where she keeps the list of student names and the phonetic pronunciations was actually left for her by Sublette.
“It’s falling apart but I have it taped together” Mills said. “It brings me good luck.”
Mills breaks up the meetings with the students alphabetically over two weeks. During these two weeks, students will come see her during their break and Mills writes down the pronunciation of their names in the notebook.
“Once all that’s finished, I try to catch the ones that didn’t come,” Mills said. “The ones I’m still having trouble with—because you hear it and you think you’ve got it but then when you’re practicing that, you’re like, ‘yeah that doesn’t sound right.’ So I’ll call them back down.”
She has a very simple way to ask the students how to pronounce their names.
“‘What does your mom or dad want to hear?’” Mills said.
Pronouncing the students’ names right is a top priority for Mills, even if those students have foreign names.
“A couple of students have spent a lot of time with me because their names are very difficult to say with my accent,” Mills said. “I want to get it right. They’ll say, ‘Just say it how you would in American,’ and I’m like ‘No.’ The Spanish speaking students’ (names), I try to roll the ‘r.’”
As a mom and grandmother, Mills says she understands the importance of students and their families hearing the name called correctly.
“You hear it one time from high school,” Mills said. “I have four children and I have grandchildren and I thought long and hard about their names and they’re all special. I would like for someone to say it right. You’ve got to get it right.”
She said that the excitement students have when their name is called correctly fills her with joy.
“They come back and tell me, ‘Miss Mills, you got my name right,’ and it means a lot to me,” Mills said.
As far as actually calling the names, Mills has a kit inside the notebook that includes cough drops and earplugs for graduation day.
“There’s such an echo on the field you don’t know about,” Mills said. “You hear a delay of your voice back so you mentally adjust that and so you sound drunk.”
Mills said she makes sure to tell the valedictorian and any other students speaking to wear earplugs because of the echo.
She also makes notes in her notebook to make sure the rhythm of the graduation stays on beat. She said her cue to call the next name is the camera flash when a student gets their picture taken receiving the diploma.
“I have to make notes in my notebook on graduation day like ‘pause’ because we might have a student coming across in crutches or a wheelchair,” Mills said. “It’s also important to me that when I say the name they shake the hand. When I say the name, the parent is taking pictures and it needs to be the right kid shaking (EHS Principal) Mr. (Brent) Harrison’s hand.”
Mills said it’s always one of the most stressful parts of her job.
“I always stress out about it but when it’s over, I’m super proud it’s part of my job,” Mills said.
Mills will move to the central office on Hutchinson Street to oversee the entire system’s 504 and testing programs instead of just the one at EHS. The 504 refers to accommodations schools provide to students with disabilities.
Replacing Mills will be current Holly Hill assistant principal Stephanie Quisenberry.
Mills said she will probably leave the practice notebook for Quisenberry to use and believes that Quisenberry will keep up the tradition.
“She’s a dynamite person,” Mills said. “I’m sure she will. That’s the thing about Enterprise High School, there are so many deep-rooted traditions that mean a lot to the families that have been here a while and that’s our community. It’s important.”