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IT’S BEEN SUCH A LONG TIME

May 4, 2017

By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools

Paula Barnes admittedly has no musical talent.

None.

She wishes it could be different, but it’s not. In fact, she’s unsuccessfully tried, and as Barnes put it, “It’s just not there for me.”

Instead she admires those who do and appreciates their ability to sing and perform. But her own lack of musical talent hasn’t stopped her from singing along with some of her favorite bands from the ’70s and ’80s.

On her last day as principal at the McFadden School of Excellence, the song Long Time came on the radio and “I sang it as loud as I could in the car.”

It felt good.

It eased the difficulty of leaving behind a school she still calls “my home.”

Though it was the generally humid month of August, the windows were up that morning and Barnes was already feeling emotional, so it didn’t matter if she was harmonizing or not with the late Brad Delp on one of three singles from Boston’s self-titled debut album that has sold more than 17 million copies since its release in 1976.

Yeah, it felt good.

“I thought, that’s what I’m doing,” explained Barnes, who related to the lyrics more so than the song’s mid-tempo melody, “I’m moving on to the next thing.”

She’s cried nearly every time she’s heard it since. Though she’s quick to point out it’s not a sad cry. It’s a happy cry even if Long Time is a reminder that time keeps on rollin.

It’s doesn’t seem like it – at least not to Barnes – but it’s been another 12 years and, well, time is still rolling by.

Barnes, who will be 67 in October, is retiring from her position as Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and Student Services. She’s been with Rutherford County Schools for 38 years and has spent more than 42 years in education.

“It’s kind of the same thing. It’s just time. It’s time to go and do something else,” said Barnes, who choked up as she wiped away the tears building along her lower eyelids.

“I knew this conversation would be hard.” 

It's been such a long time
I think I should be goin', yeah
And time doesn't wait for me, it keeps on rollin'
Sail on, on a distant highway, yeah
I've got to keep on chasin' a dream
I've gotta be on my way
Wish there was something I could say

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a labor shortage in Birmingham, Alabama, brought Italian immigrants to the area’s coal and steel industries.

Among those immigrants were the Scalici and Deluca families.

Matteo Scalici had met and married Mary Spina in Sicily. The young couple had several children before they immigrated to the United States, where Matteo was a coal miner and settled in Birmingham.

Auturo and Marie Deluca were married and started a family in Northern Italy before they decided to immigrate to the U.S. They settled in the small town of West Blocton, which is halfway between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, and opened a family grocery store.

Both families grew after arriving in America.

Matteo and Mary had a son named Jack, while Auturo and Marie welcomed a daughter named Adeline. Years later, Jack and Adeline met and married. Adeline was a hairdresser and Jack worked for Alabama Leather before transferring to Nashville and spending his entire career as the manager of Southern Leather Company.

Jack and Adeline had three daughters—Jean, Jackie and Paula, their youngest.

Paula recalled spending her summer vacations staying with her maternal grandparents, who lived in a house behind the grocery store.

“I remember the chickens were running loose,” said Paula, who compared the “family compound” to a scene from the classic film The Godfather. “That’s what it looked like.”

Neither grandfather spoke English.

And her older uncles spoke only limited English.

Her dad, Jack, passed away in the 1970s and her mom, Adeline, passed in the ’80s. 

Well, I'm takin' my time, I'm just movin' on
You'll forget about me after I've been gone
And I take what I find, I don't want no more
It's just outside of your front door
Ah yeah, it's been such a long time
It's been such a long time

“Life just happens,” Paula Barnes said.

Those three little words pretty much summarizes how Barnes got involved in education.

Barnes and Sally Conrad, who later married and became Sally Clinard, had been best friends since second grade and both decided on moving to Knoxville and enrolling in the University of Tennessee.

“I sure didn’t know what I wanted to do,” said Barnes, who spent her first couple years taking the required coursework and various electives.

Barnes and Conrad were roommates in the dorm.

Conrad had already declared herself an education major and the two would talk about Conrad’s classes and the various reading assignments.

“It really interested me because I’ve always been a people person and working with people and helping people,” said Barnes, who enrolled in a few education courses and then took a few more before having what she described as “that ah-ha moment.”

She met Harry Gill while they were in grad school together. Years later, Gill would hire Barnes as one of his trusted assistant superintendents for Rutherford County Schools.

Immediately following graduation, Barnes spent five eye-opening years with the Orleans Parish School Board.

It was a high-poverty area with highly at-risk students and Barnes had never experienced anything quite like it, but her first principal became a mentor.

The Orleans Parish principal ran the school with an iron fist and despite its socio-economic background, the school had high expectations for their students.

Those years in New Orleans made a lifelong impact.

“I realized how much we need to help our students,” said Barnes, who then transferred to Rutherford schools and worked with another group of at-risk students at Thurman Francis Junior High School. “That was kind of my niche.”

Barnes added, “I felt like I could communicate with students in that role.”

It was at Thurman Francis that Barnes learned to talk, and more importantly, listen to young people. And with time comes patience.

Connecting and communicating would become a hallmark of her career.

Donald Jernigan and Laura Harper were a pair of mentors who not only helped Barnes become a great educator in the classroom, but they prepared her for roles that were forthcoming.

Jernigan was the principal at Thurman Francis and later became a school board member.

He was kind, generous and a good listener, but, according to Barnes, everyone knew he was the one managing the school. Barnes remembered Harper, who was the assistant principal, as consistent, determined and held students and staff alike to high expectations.

Barnes adopted those same qualities.

“I watched her and I listened to her,” Barnes said, “and, really, I modeled my growth after her.”

Barnes was at Thurman Francis for more than a decade and then Smyrna Middle for one year. Then she decided to follow the lead of her mentors and transition from the classroom to an administrative role as an assistant principal at McFadden Elementary School.

“That’s what grabbed me, talking about the impact that teachers have,” said Barnes, who loves engaging in discussions about teaching philosophies. 

Well, I get so lonely, when I am without you
But in my mind, deep in my mind
I can't forget about you
Good times, and faces that remind me, yeah
I'm tryin' to forget your name and leave it all behind me
You're comin' back to find me

Barnes started her administrative career as an assistant principal before becoming the principal, during which time McFadden transitioned from a traditional school to a magnet school.

“It was a such a great opportunity to watch that program be built,” said Barnes, who herself transitioned from a career working with high-risk students to helming a student body comprised of exceptional students.

It was difficult.

And it took the vision of a strong leader.

To hear Debbie Butrum, who taught at McFadden while Barnes was an administrator and is now the librarian in the school’s Paula Barnes Media Center, describe what Barnes was like as an administrator echoes what Barnes said of her mentors.

“She’s a real human being first,” said Butrum, who conversely had plenty of examples of when Barnes had a strong vision. “This is my favorite quote of hers, “Folks, I’m wide open for suggestions, but I’m not changing my mind.”

Butrum added, “She has confidence and every decision she makes is so methodic.”

It was a two-year transition.

The first year, Barnes and a group of roughly 20 teachers who meet regularly to discuss everything from recruiting students to writing the new curriculum. They visited other magnet schools throughout Middle Tennessee and invited realtors and civic groups to visit McFadden.

They all bought red blazers and wore them to the first open house for prospective parents.

Barnes remembers parents having tough questions and that she and her initial staff had to sell the community on sending their gifted child to a school that had otherwise been looked at as an inner city school.

But inside those walls, they built McFadden into one of the premiere elementary schools in the district.

“Our focus was location doesn’t mean anything,” Barnes said. “It’s what’s inside the walls that makes a difference and we had it going on.”

The first year, McFadden virtually housed two complete schools with more than 900 students in the building.

The magnet school was in its first year and it would be another year before Blackman Elementary would open and the traditional students would be transferred. Barnes had to balance her time between two sets of faculty and two sets of parents, each with their own needs.

“We learned over two or three years before we perfected what we were doing,” Barnes said. “It was very challenging and a different type of student that you’re dealing with.”

“She instilled a drive in everybody to make it successful,” Butrum said.

It was a great experience, according to Barnes.

And she’s maintained some meaningful relationships.

But, yet again, time keeps on rollin’ and shepherding the transition became the foundation for her future at the Central Office.

She displayed a knack for managing people and personalities, which went a long way with former Director of Schools Harry Gill.

“That’s a special place in my heart, McFadden. It always will be,” said Barnes, who spent 16 years at McFadden, 12 of it as a magnet school. “When I left McFadden that was a very tearful journey to walk away from there. That was my home.” 

Well I'm takin' my time, I'm just movin' on
You'll forget about me after I've been gone
And I take what I find, I don't want no more
It's just outside of why our front door, yeah, yeah, yeah
It's been such a long time
It's been such a long time

“Be careful what you ask for.”

Those were the first words Gill said when he called Barnes with the news he was recommending her for the position.

It was summertime when Barnes applied and she wasn’t with her faculty, much less the students. On the heels of her interview with Gill, his call came during the first day Barnes was meeting with her faculty.

They were planning out the entire schoolyear.

Barnes momentarily excused herself from the meeting and actually recalled stepping into a closet for privacy.

Butrum said everyone knew Barnes interviewed for the position, but rampant rumors had Barnes taking a principal position at Barfield Elementary and that she had been making calls to assemble a staff.

“I knew that wasn’t true,” Butrum said, “because I hadn’t been called about Barfield and I knew she wasn’t leaving without me.”

Barnes returned to the meeting without saying a word about the call. No one asked either.

Then after they had planned out the entire year, Barnes broke the news.

It was emotional.

“We were devastated,” Butrum said.

“We all cried together,” Barnes said. “I’m a crier. I’m Italian and very emotional. We cried and then we talked about what we were going to do moving forward. How do we plan? And lets welcome the new person into our building and show them what a great place this is.”

Gill said the assistant superintendent position “is a huge job with enormous responsibility” and selected Barnes because he felt she had the right combination of friendliness and competency to handle the job.

He also said, “It was evident to me she would make sage decisions” and, “at the same time, she brought character to the position.”

“She made human resources human again,” Butrum added.

Current Director Don Odom agreed with Gill.

Odom said that in addition to her “strong people skills,” Barnes has been able to navigate “changes in personnel” that requires more state evaluations of teachers than ever before.

During what has been a time of great change in public education, Odom talked about her exceptional organizational skills in tracking evaluations, and when needed, retraining employees.

“She’s a person who can navigate through changes,” Odom said. “Some people have trouble with change, Paula doesn’t.”

Not to mention, the system has grown by 1,500 employees or more since Gill hired Barnes.

“She knows the people of Rutherford County,” Odom said, “and she knows the people in the teaching profession.”

Her retirement inevitably comes during the busiest time of the calendar year. Barnes and her human resources staff are dealing with retirements, transfers and hundreds of new hires – full and part-time – for next school year.

She and her staff recently held their annual job fair – under Barnes, RCS was the first district in Tennessee to hold its own fair – and, at the same time, she’s always taken great pride in having regular communication with the more than 5,500 employees.

“It’s tough to leave,” she said.

Yeah, it's been such a long time
I think I should be goin', yeah
And time doesn’t wait for me, it keeps on rollin'
There's a long road, I've gotta stay in time with, yeah
I've got to keep on chasin' that dream, though I may never find it
I'm always just behind it

“It’s all I know,” said Barnes, who leaves behind a four-decades-long legacy.

It was two years ago when Barnes first thought about when she might retire and what that would look like. Her husband Jim retired from his job with the State of Tennessee. He took more active roles with their church and his men’s group.

“I watched that evolve,” said Barnes, who began seriously contemplating retirement a year ago, “and my thoughts are, when I retire I need to have some kind of outlet because I’m a highly energized person. I need to be active. I don’t sit well.”

She has options or as Barnes puts it, “I have irons in the fire.”

But for now, she plans to enjoy her morning coffee and watch the news. She intends to spend time reading historical fiction novels, driving to Nashville to visit her sisters, and perhaps, most importantly, spending time with Jim.

They raised two kids – Jackie and Brad – and hadn’t always had opportunities to spend extended periods of time together. Now it’s time to rejuvenate family ties.

That said, it’s hard to let go of something she’s held so closely for so long, but when she finally made the decision to make her retirement official, Barnes said she was at peace.

“It’s not the end,” she said. “It’s just the beginning of something else.”

She still can’t sing, but even if she’s slightly out of key she’s been singing Long Time softly to herself around the office these days and, yeah, despite those who asked her to reconsider—she’s movin’ along. 

Well I'm takin' my time, I'm just movin' along
Takin' my time; oh, just movin' along
Takin' my time; ah, just takin' my time
Takin' my time; oh, yeah
Takin' my time; oh, oh
Takin' my time
Takin' my time
Takin' my time

 PHOTO / JAMES EVANS