January 27, 2012

2012 Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Heavenly direction: Belief in angels spurs educator to guide children

Sherlynn Pillow, right, shares a smile with Kalissa Larsuel, a first-grade student at Holy Angels School in Indianapolis, where Pillow is the principal and a firm believer in the guidance of angels. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Sherlynn Pillow, right, shares a smile with Kalissa Larsuel, a first-grade student at Holy Angels School in Indianapolis, where Pillow is the principal and a firm believer in the guidance of angels. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

It could be just a terrific coincidence—but try to sell that explanation to Sherlynn Pillow, who believes that angels protect and watch over people.

In June of 2010, Pillow was depressed because her nearly 30-year career in education seemed to be coming to an end due to budget cuts and the closing of the school where she had worked for the past 12 years, Craig Middle School in Indianapolis.

During her last days at the school, Pillow received an unexpected phone call from Connie Zittnan, executive director of the Mother Theodore Catholic Academies in the archdiocese. Pillow had previously applied for an education position with the archdiocese, but wasn’t contacted. So the call from Zittnan about a job opening for a principal caught her off-guard.

“Connie told me that I probably never heard of the school, that it was a little school on the west side of Indianapolis called Holy Angels,” Pillow recalls. “I busted out laughing. Connie asked me why I was laughing. I said, ‘I was baptized at Holy Angels. I grew up a block from the school. It’s the area I know. It’s my home.’ ”

After a few days of interviews, Pillow had the job.

“I tell people that it was God calling me home,” says a smiling Pillow as she sits in her office where her door, shelves and window sills are decorated with items from her extensive collection of angels. “When I got the phone call from Connie, it was another moment when the angels were watching over me.”

In her second year as principal, Pillow tries to be an angel for the 132 children at the school that serves students from kindergarten through the sixth-grade. She views the fact that she is black and from the neighborhood as an advantage in connecting with Holy Angels students, who overwhelmingly come from black families.

“The one thing that the kids at Holy Angels may have not had in the past is someone who looks like them who is a role model,” says Pillow, the mother of two teenagers. “They know I came from this area. They look at me and say, ‘She was able to go to college. She was able to do things.’ I think the parents are a little more comfortable with me, too.

“I want to build relationships—with high expectations. I expect a lot from the students, the parents, the teachers and myself. I think any one of these kids can meet those expectations. I want them to understand that their charge as young people is to make their community better.”

As a parent, Cardis Morton appreciates that approach to education for his son, Matthew, a third-grade student at Holy Angels School.

“She’s a hands-on principal who cares, who listens and who gets involved,” Morton says. “They don’t accept bullying. And if you have a concern, she always has time to sit and talk with you and solve it. She’s a blessing. I wish everybody had an opportunity to go to a Catholic school, especially this one.”

Pillow views Holy Angels as a school based on the foundations of Catholic identity, academics and cultural identity—a theme that appears frequently throughout the school building.

Tributes to George Washington Carver, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President Barack Obama and other black heroes hang in the hallways.

A prominent display honors black role models from religious life. St. Martin de Porres is hailed for using his medical skills to help the poor. Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange is praised as the founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first United States-based religious order of black women. St. Charles Lwanga of Uganda is saluted as a martyr who died for his Catholic faith.

“I decided to try to get the kids to understand that Catholicism is not a white religion,” she says. “I’ve focused on people who are saints or missionaries who look like them, who are part of the Catholic Church. The Catholic identity is important to me. I like being able to voice what I believe as far as God, as far as what Jesus Christ has done in my life, to talk about men and women who have achieved great things because of their faith.”

She also connects with the children through their interests.

She does Tae Bo exercises with the school’s youngest children. After school, she joins students as they dance to a Michael Jackson video game. She tries to attend their Catholic Youth Organization games. And she is always challenging the older students about taking responsibility for their actions while still being there for them—even sometimes buying shoes for a child in need.

If others see the touch of an angel in what she does, Pillow downplays that comparison, saying, “I just do what needs to be done.” Still, she believes she is guided by angels.

“I get up in the morning and I’m happy about coming here,” she says. “I go home exhausted, but I’m still happy. I truly believe someone is watching over me and guiding me.” †

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