Just before I started fifth grade, our newly single-mom-family moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to suburban Houston, Texas. I was already reeling as a 12-year-old experiencing pubescent mood swings and a crescendo of growth taking me to 5’ 2”–way above most girls my age. At the time, I had no idea that I’d only grow one more inch over my whole life, I just felt giant-like around other kids. Moving across the country added an extra dose of anxiety as I’d need to make all new friends in a strange place.
So, when I entered Miss Hailey’s fifth-grade classroom, clad in my supercool white go-go boots and puffed sleeved mini dress, I was more than a little bit nervous. Did girls wear such trends in Texas? Would I fit in or stand out?
I tucked my long legs under my desk and sat obediently in place while Miss Hailey called roll. She came to my name and projected, “Elisa Lee.”
“Here,” I answered and then raised my hand, interrupting her before she could announce the next name. “Excuse me, Miss Hailey?” I asked.
“What is it?” she responded, pen poised over her clipboard.
“My name is Elisa–pronounced Aleeeeesa. You pronounced it Alisa, with a short i.”
A moment passed while Miss Hailey considered my comment. Abruptly, she gathered her thoughts, squinted her eyes just a bit, and quipped, “Well, you’ll just have to get used to how I pronounce it. You’re Alisa in here.”
Though I held my face in place, inside, my heart fell. I felt unknown, unnoticed, and unaccepted. True to her word, through all of the fifth grade, I was “Alisa” to Miss Hailey.
Who knows your name? How to spell it? How to pronounce it? Who are you behind its label?
Above my desk today is a framed cardboard card–cut from the top of a gift box–covered with the handwriting of both my mother and my father. The story behind it is that they hadn’t yet selected a name for their second-born daughter when I arrived. In the hospital room, my dad grabbed a gift box, tore off its lid, and with my mom, they began the work of conjugating a name for me. Ilesa. Ilisha. Melissa. Milesa. Mellisa. Ilisa. And yes, Alisa. Then, in the upper right corner, sitting alone but repeated several lines down, Elisa. My parents, married only nine years in total and divorced when I was five, invested intentionality in naming me. The name they picked meant something to them. It meant something to me. So, it mattered to me that Miss Hailey mispronounced my name. Her error made me feel like an error.
Over the years, I’ve come to understand there is One who formed me specifically, who knows my ways and is intimately familiar with every part of me. Wherever I may move, God goes with me and provides for me.
You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar… (Psalm 139:1, NIV)
I’ve come to realize that not only does God know every part of me, he actually also knows my name. Jesus speaks of himself as the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” (John 10:3, NIV)
And if God knows my name, he also knows how to pronounce it, how my mother and father intended me to be known by others.
Once I discovered God’s great and unchanging love for me, I was able to remember Miss Hailey and see her mistake with grace. Miss Hailey didn’t mean to demean me or cause damage to my heart. I know that now. Likely, her insistence on her mispronunciation of “Alisa” grew out of self-defense, a desire to protect a space of wounding in her own being.
At the end of my fifth-grade year, Miss Hailey became engaged to be married. A few months later, from my lofty sixth-grade stature, I learned that once married, her name became Mrs. Gross. I confess I giggled over that.
Do you know Who knows your name? Along with its proper pronunciation? Does your daughter? No matter who has missed knowing us in our past, when we live a life demonstrating that we know Jesus and that we know he knows us and our name, we can walk into any room with the confidence that we are known and loved.