There are only a handful of people in my life that I can remember meeting for the first time. Lou Anne Pillers is one of them. On a gorgeous sunny afternoon in the summer of 1990, I was corralling my brood out to the pool area of our town’s brand spanking new Day’s Inn where we were meeting a new employee’s family. A woman sitting poolside looked up from her Diet Coke and with her blond hair and distinctive sunglasses, I immediately knew it was Lou Anne. We sat together watching our collective children perform their best aquatic tricks, ensuring they didn’t drown in the process and began the dance of getting to know each other. We were brought together because Lou Anne’s husband had accepted a position at the same printing company that Mr. Smith worked for and the Pillers were in town looking for a place to live. Luckily for me, their search led them to purchase the home two houses down from me on Diamond Street. It was the beginning of a long and event-packed friendship.
Lou Anne quickly settled into life in her new town. Over the years our friendship strengthened, our children grew older, and life was busy. While coordinating events for her two children, slumber parties for her daughter and outdoor activities for her son, she still found time for book group, church activities, charity projects and providing many satisfied customers with delicious baked goods. Her cheesecakes are legendary in our small Indiana town. When both her children were in school full time, a dear friend of hers persuaded Lou Anne to take a position as an assistant at a preschool, which she did for the next eight years.
Despite her busy life, Lou Anne still felt incomplete. She had taken some college classes after high school and “piddled” at it over the years, but in 2002 finally decided that she was going back to school and pursue a teaching license. She isn’t sure what pushed her to finally commit to get her degree, but she felt it was the right time. Perhaps it was her daughter off to her first year of college or the shocking events of 9/11, both events that make one aware of the passing of time.
So she left her preschool position and became a college student with the goal of becoming a history teacher. And she loved it. Undaunted by instructors who were younger nor bothered by being the oldest student in many of her classes, she excelled, earning top marks. One day in a conversation with an instructor she mentioned that her major was social studies. Their response was, “Do you know how hard it is to get a job teaching Social Studies?” Well, no she didn’t, so she simply added an English minor to her academic load.
Five years later Mr. Smith and I found ourselves sitting in an auditorium and looking on with affection as Lou Anne received her college diploma. In 2007 with her teaching license in hand she began the job search.
While obtaining her degree had been easier than she anticipated, finding a job was much more difficult. She would often get an interview, but not the job. She would go for the interview, leave thinking it had gone well, only to watch someone younger and perkier land the position. Seeing a pattern developing, Lou Anne signed up to be a substitute teacher. Disappointed but not defeated, she persevered, hoping to make connections that would lead to a full-time teaching position. Few new teachers think substitute teaching is an easy gig and while there are a couple of classes in her early subbing days she would like to forget, for the most part Lou Anne found the students to be great. Her reward for this was a principal who appeared in her classroom doorway one morning, checking on all the classes with subs that day. “Oh, it’s you. I never worry when you’re the sub.” But when she interviewed for a position there, despite having concrete evidence of her ability as a teacher, she still failed to get the job. It went to a young woman fresh out of college.
Subbing was exhausting so Lou Anne was thrilled when she landed a long-term assignment. An English teacher had left in an angry huff in February and she stepped in to finish the year for her. She felt she had found her home. The entire English Department and the principal acted like Lou Anne was a natural for the permanent position. Yet at the end of the academic year, the female principal retired, a young man became principal, and he decided “to go in a different direction.” Again, she was stung by disappointment. Was it her age? It certainly felt like it was.
Was it that every principal she interviewed with was male? Or was it her? Feeling more than a little frustrated, Lou Anne did some research on a group of students she had met while working on her degree who were also endeavoring to make a career change midlife. She was surprised and discouraged to learn that none of the group had found a full-time teaching position and many of them had allowed their teaching license to lapse. But not Lou Anne.
She was disheartened by what she viewed as recent lower expectations of students and a creeping apathy toward learning at many of the schools and frustrated with finding a permanent position. Yet she didn’t give up. In 2013 she was rewarded for her perseverance when she accepted an invitation to join the faculty at St. John Lutheran School. She knew the school. Her children had attended St. John’s and she thought it might just be a great fit for her. And it was. Instructing 6th, 7th and 8th grade students in Social Studies, US History, English Language Arts and Art, she would be teaching all things she loves.
One benefit of a smaller size school is that it fosters a close-knit staff. Lou Anne feels like they are working together toward a goal based on trust that allows her independence and creativity to flourish. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, she helps with extracurricular activities like spell bowl, fundraisers for the annual Washington DC trip, student council and outdoor education. Teaching different subjects calls for a tremendous amount of prep work. Starting her workday at 7:00 a.m. and not leaving school until 5:30 or 6:00 p.m., she still feels the need to spend some time in her classroom each weekend.
Fulfilling goals at any age is empowering and she will always be proud and grateful she persisted. In a bittersweet decision, Lou Anne will be retiring at the end of this school year and her talents will be missed. A part of her is sad to be leaving because she feels she has accomplished a lot and touched many lives. But the pull of the prospect of time spent with grandchildren and relaxing days watching TV from her sofa without feeling guilty is fiercely tempting. No lesson plans, no papers to grade, no grades to record. Just Lou Anne, the cozy couch and the remote. And probably a Diet Coke.
C’est la vie.