By HARRIET PROTHRO PENROD
When one of my colleagues at SBJ recommended Lana Gilliam as an ideal “Lunch with Harriet” guest, I agreed whole-heartedly. I have known Lana for many years.
“She taught my nephew in kindergarten,” I told him.
With a laugh, he responded, “She’s taught everyone’s nephew.”
When Lana Gilliam made her annual trip to the post office last month carrying the usual stack of bulging envelopes, the lady behind the desk asked, “What in the world are you doing with all these big envelopes? Where are they going?”
The envelopes were being mailed to the same place they have gone for the previous 44 Aprils – to the graduating high school students that Gilliam had taught way back when they were in kindergarten.
This year, one went to Ohio, one to California, one to Ruston and the rest were local.
When she started teaching kindergarten at Eden Gardens Elementary 45 years ago, Gilliam started keeping some of the things her students had created – “what I want to be when I grow up” writings, “my best friend is …” declarations, and lots of pictures.
“Every time I’d go to CVS, I’d get duplicates of the pictures – one for the kids to take home and one I’d keep,” explains Gilliam as we both enjoy chicken salad sandwiches at Taziki’s Mediterranean Café.
When the seniors open their packets, they will find all of the stuff they created 12 years earlier – notes, pictures, drawings. There will also be a note from Gilliam offering some advice.
“Pretend this is my teacher’s voice,” she will put in her letter. “I’m telling you some things to do.”
She’ll also include a letter to the parents that usually says something like: “I know this is hard on you, but you’ve had 12 years to get used to it.”
If you think this is not a big deal to those students – and their parents – you would be sorely mistaken. I personally know teenagers who have eagerly anticipated receiving their packets.
Gilliam calculates she’s probably sent out 1,200 “high school packets” in the last 45 years.
When you add to those 45 (all at Eden Gardens) to Gilliam’s first three years teaching in East Baton Rouge, you’ve got 48 years of kindergarten instruction.
Every school morning for all those years, Lana Gilliam has gotten up at 4:30 and arrived at school an hour-and-a-half before the first bell.
When we meet for lunch on this Monday (she had an “off-campus lunch pass”), Gilliam will be following that routine for just eight more days. When the kids show up for the first day of the 2023-2024 school year, Gilliam will be sleeping in that morning.
“Right now, it hasn’t hit me yet,” says Gilliam, who is retiring after 48 years teaching kindergarten.
After thinking a few seconds, Gilliam answers: “I just got tired of all the professional development. When they came out and said we had to use the Science of Reading curriculum – which basically takes us back to teach reading the way I’ve already done it . . .”
When “they” wanted to teach Gilliam something she already knew how to do, she knew it was time.
But it wasn’t just the professional development. There was more to it than that.
This past January, Gilliam decided the time was right – her parents were 95 years old and she knew she needed to spend more time with them. That’s when she went to the Caddo Parish School Board to sign her retirement papers.
“I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,” Gilliam was told by the lady in the retirement office. “When you called me, I looked it up and do you know you have 283 sick days? I don’t know why you even showed up this year.”
I know why (often, teachers will use their sick days and leave early).
Lana Gilliam has always had a passion for teaching. Even as a young girl growing up in Little Rock, Ark., she knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“You have to have that passion,” she explains. “It’s like a coaching job – it’s not easy and every year you might lose your job. But you have to have the passion for it. You have to want to change someone’s life. You have to want to make their life a little better. And if you have that opportunity, why wouldn’t you take it?”
Gilliam began changing children’s lives in 1975, when she started teaching kindergarten at Bakerfield Elementary School in Baton Rouge while her husband Bobby was in law school at LSU (the two had met while students at Ouachita Baptist University).
After moving to Shreveport (Bobby’s hometown), she started teaching at Eden Gardens.
Forty-eight years. Six principals. And lots of memories.
Never going to Target or Sam’s without running into someone whose life she has touched. She laughs when she thinks about the numerous weddings and baby showers she has attended of former students.
And she starts to tear up when she thinks about the sad times. “I’ve been to some funerals,” she says.
“The kids,” Gilliam responds when asked what she will miss about teaching. And there have been many – the children of the children she has taught and the incredible number of siblings (the most she has taught in a family is four).
“And I’ll miss my co-workers,” she adds.
So how will she spend all the extra time?
Gilliam will take more two-hour drives to Mineola, Texas, to visit her mother (her father passed away in March). She’ll also get to make it to more of her son’s baseball games – Bobby, Jr., is the head coach at Bossier Parish Community College.
And there will be projects.
“I’ve got the whole upstairs that’s nothing but school stuff,” she says. “That’s where I’ve worked on stuff and I need to clean it out. And the third bay in our carport has nothing but file cabinets where I’ve kept all the kids’ stuff.”
The idea of saving that “stuff” to send to the students 12 years later came from, of course, a teacher.
“I had a first-grade teacher right out of college,” Gilliam explains. “She taught one year and said, ‘This is not for me’ so she went to (teach) high school.”
Turns out Gilliam had that same teacher for typing in high school.
“When we graduated, she had us all come out to her lake house and we had a barbeque,” says Gilliam. “When we were there, she said, ‘This is wonderful. I started with y’all and y’all are ending it with me.’
“I thought, ‘I know I want to be a teacher, so I’m going to do something for my graduating kids.’ So I started saving their stuff.”
When Gilliam got the job at Eden Gardens, she wrote a note to that teacher telling her how she had inspired her and said she was going to start keeping her students’ things and do something for them.
That teacher passed away two years ago.
“When she passed away, her daughter sent me that note that I had sent her,” recalls Gilliam. “She said, ‘I was going through my mother’s things, and she kept your note all these years.’”
Never underestimate the importance of a note from Lana Gilliam.
Contact Harriet at firstname.lastname@example.org