Student Story #2: Lee-lah / Layla

Lila (pronounced Lay-lah by her mom and Lee-lah by her) entered my fifth grade class in 2006 with a big, bright eyes and a tremendous smile. She was the kind of kid that was quiet, who followed the rules not because she had to, but because she wanted to. When I called her name aloud I paused. I couldn’t remember the pronunciation Mom told me on the phone. I knew it wasn’t Lai-luh. It was something else. So, I said, “Miss Marshall, how do I pronounce your first name?”
“Lee-lah,” she replied in a firm, yet soft, voice.
“Okay. Thank you. Welcome,” I said. And that was that… or so I thought.
When it came time for Parent-Teacher Conferences, I pronounced Lila’s name as “Lee-lah.” Her mom said, “You don’t know my daughter’s name?!??!”
“She told me it was pronounced Lee-lah,” I replied.
“Lee-lah? We don’t call her Lee-lah. It’s Lay-lah,” her mom said with a stern face to match her tone.
“Okay. Lay-lah it is. My apologies,” I responded.
Lila’s mom shook her head and the conference continued.

The following morning, I pulled Lila aside before we began the Pledge of Allegiance. “Lila, Mom told me your name is pronounced Lay-lah. Have I been saying it wrong this whole time.”
First she nodded. Then, her head changed positions and she shook it no.
“What’s going on?” I asked Lila.
“I don’t like it said like the way my family says it. I think Lee-lah is prettier. Please don’t call me Lay-lah.”
What was I going to do? What if I continued calling her Lay-lah and her Mom found out, again. Would she think I was dumb or disrespectful towards her wishes?
“But what if Mom finds out?” I asked Lila acting as if I were five and had just stolen a cookie from the cookie jar.
“She won’t,” Lila retorted.
“But what if she does?” I asked.
I paused. I saw the look on Lila’s face. She truly meant it… it was written all over her face. I could tell she was dreading to be called by the pronunciation her family members used.
“Okay. We’ll continue calling you ‘Lee-lah’ on one condition. Whenever Mom comes in, I’m going to call you Lay-lah.”
“Really Ms. S.?” she asked excitedly.
“Yes Lila. We’ll only call you Lee-lah in school.”

And so, from November 2006 – June 2007, I had to remember to change the pronunciation of Lila’s name every time I called Mom or ran into her on the street. I became a master at the switch, which somehow felt a bit unethical to me. However, we don’t choose our names… our parents (and others) do. This experience taught me that kids sometimes need to have a say in what they’re called so that they’re comfortable walking through life. I’m glad I didn’t buckle to the pressure to call Lila Lay-lah. She would’ve been miserable and uncomfortable in my classroom. (I later found out she had pulled this off when she was in fourth grade too since her fourth grade teacher also called her Lee-lah.)
The poet Zelda wrote a poem entitled “Each of Us Has a Name.” (Click here to read the entire poem if you find the first few stanzas, below, meaningful.) I think that this poem, coupled with the experience I had with Lila reminds me of the importance of names and what we’re called in life… and what we’re called by others truly matters.


Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors