December 13, 2016
By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools
Ann Haley is a lot of things.
She’s a daughter, a sister, a wife and a mother. She’s an elementary school principal and a fierce defender of the students of John Colemon Elementary School, where she’s in her third year as principal. She’s a real-life-prizefighter, and most importantly, a cancer survivor.
Ann Haley also happens to be a crier.
By her own admission, she cries a lot.
She might even be tearing up right now, but it’s important to know she’s never — OK, almost never – cried out of self-pity. Anytime she broke down during her battle with cancer — other than one time that she can recall — it wasn’t about herself. She shed those tears at the thought of her two boys — Isaac, 20, and Lytton, 16 – growing up without a mother.
Against all odds she survived.
Then against all odds, she went from fighting for her life to fighting on behalf of the kids who attend John Colemon.
And this is their story as much as it’s hers.
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Haley fell in love with those kids the first day she arrived at a school many are not even aware of in Smyrna.
“Some of the best things in life are hidden,” Haley said. “You just have to open your eyes and see them.”
They’re good kids and she could see how much potential they had to offer this world the moment she met them. Haley said it shouldn’t matter where they live or what school they attended, every last one of them deserved to be told “the sky is the limit.”
When the students of John Colemon return from winter break, they’ll walk into a brand new school that teachers and staff have been moving into this week.
The newly constructed school, which has been under construction for the past year, represents the sky.
The 518 kids who are currently enrolled and the thousands to come in the years ahead embody the idea of no limits — and, as is the case at John Colemon, anything is possible.
But, for Haley, it feels too good to be true.
She cries just thinking about it.
Haley has been walking between the old and new building two or three times a week in recent months and watched it progress from the first day the excavators broke ground.
“Some days I have to get up and go see what all the noise is about,” said Haley, who admitted other days she just needs a moment alone to take it all in and, well, cry some more tears of joy.
She’s certain all the kids realize the building will be their new school, but most of them are too young to understand how different it will be beginning Jan. 4. For the students, a majority of whom come from economically challenged families, this will be the first time in their life they have something brand new to call their own.
However, truth be told, the fourth- and fifth-graders are ecstatic about having lockers. It seems simple enough, but lockers are something they’ve never had until now. So to have one to call their own is a big deal to a nine- and 10-year-old.
“A lot of them have only been here,” said Haley, speaking of the outdated building that could very well have been replaced 20 years ago. “They don’t know what other schools have and what they haven’t had.”
Haley added, “When I came here, I didn’t know a place like this existed in Rutherford County.”
What does “like this” even mean?
Those previously mentioned fourth- and fifth-graders along with third-graders are being taught in trailers that serve as classrooms. During rainy periods they have to walk through an inch or two of standing water just to come inside the actual school for lunch.
Art teacher Amanda Bryant doesn’t even have a room.
She’s literally been carting her art supplies from one space to another. Like Haley, Bryant teared up everytime she had an opportunity to walk over to the new building and see an actual art room of her own.
For once, John Colemon Elementary won’t have to just make do.
They have a new facility to be envied.
The current school only has a “play area” that does not even have room for bleachers. That’s about to change. The new building has a full-size gymnasium with six basketball hoops and bleachers and a stage.
And Haley dreams of hosting events and inviting the entire community. The first of those events will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony Jan. 8.
“What a rewarding moment,” said longtime school board member Wayne Blair, whose zone represents John Colemon Elementary School.
Naturally the thought of the new school brings tears to Haley’s eyes.
One of the rare times she hasn’t cried was when she fought for the new school.
Shortly after starting, in the fall of 2014, she called then School Board chairman Wayne Blair and asked if he would walk through the school with her.
“She explained a lot of the issues they were having,” Blair said, “and then took me outside and walked me through several of the trailer classrooms. It painted a picture that some children, the only time they would ever see the inside of the building … would be to go to the restroom and the cafeteria.”
“He went to his car, called Mr. (Don) Odom and got the ball rolling to bring other board members down here,” recalled Haley, who described Blair as the catalyst that quickly led to the John Colemon project becoming a priority.
Those who needed to get behind the project — Odom, the School Board, the County Commission and the county mayor — saw an immediate need to tend to the situation. John Colemon went from waiting three to four years to be addressed to becoming the No. 1 priority.
Blair and others said it was Haley who did the convincing.
Current school board chairman Jeff Jordan recalled Haley’s commanding presence when she spoke to the School Board.
No. She didn’t cry, but there was no mistaking her passion for the kids of John Colemon.
Seeing it all come together this week makes her stop and think about what Jan. 4 will be like. And, yes, she cried a few more tears.
“These kids deserve it,” Haley said. “There are great teachers in this building. There are great staff members in this building. I don’t know, it’s easy to fight for people you love. And I love my kids. You go to bat and you fight for people you love. We do that with our families and our friends.
“Sometimes I look at that (new) building and I tear up and cry that they are finally going to get what they deserve.”
Her eyes turned red. Tears welled up along her bottom eyelids.
When asked if she thinks of herself as a fighter, she nods yes.
“I’m a cancer survivor,” she said, before stopping and looking away.
Therein begins the miracle of John Colemon Elementary School.
It was February 2009 on a Monday morning. Haley was on her way to school when she called Jon Dinkins, the principal at Wilson Elementary, to let him know she going to stop to see her doctor.
Haley thought she was passing a kidney stone and was surprised to see how tiny it was on the CT scan.
The scan also showed an infection, and unfortunately, there was more.
Her doctor said, “Sometimes when we go looking for one thing, we find another.”
He was concerned about her liver and made Haley promise to follow up with a specialist. On Wednesday, they confirmed three large masses. Her husband Bruce, her parents and her brothers were told by doctors they were 99.9 percent sure Ann had colon cancer.
A week later it was confirmed.
It was stage 4 and five days later Ann underwent a procedure to remove part of her liver. With 26 chemo treatments ahead of her, what Ann didn’t know at the time was that doctors had told her family she had 12-18 months to live.
“They knew that,” Ann said. “They knew I was fighting to live.”
Ann, on the other hand, was hoping to go back to school after spring break. Her doctors weren’t as hopeful. She asked about August. They said now wasn’t the best time talk about it. Without even knowing what her family knew, Ann cried.
Looking back, she was still in shock.
“I was going to work the day it all fell apart,” she said. “I do remember crying and saying I just want to go back to work. I want my life back.
“Then um,” said continued, before clearing her throat, “what a journey.”
In July 2009, she was told the chemo treatments hadn’t worked. In fact, doctors told her the cancer was growing and there was nothing more they could do.
One doctor at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center thought otherwise.
He performed a surgery that others said couldn’t be done.
“And here I sit before you,” Haley said. “I’m a miracle.
“I wasn’t looking for this job when I got it. I know that me being here is a God thing. I think it’s because I’m supposed to learn from these kids because I learned so much compassion from them and giving from them. For whatever reason the Lord decided He was going to leave me on this Earth for a little while longer and I do think being here is part of that plan.”
Even the job as principal came about peacefully in a single day.
She was offered the position at John Colemon Elementary and accepted it in one afternoon.
Haley, who lost her father to cancer during her own fight with the disease, knew John Colemon was where she was supposed to be.
“I think that’s what drives me — my faith and being here,” said Haley, who finally went back to work more than five years after what she thought was an issue with a kidney stone.
“That’s what gets me up — a second chance to make a difference. Let me tell you something. If you would have asked me how my life was before I got sick. I would have told you good. If you would have asked me how my walk with my savior was. I would tell you good. It was, but when you see the flip side of it maybe it wasn’t as good because you griped about too much,” she continued, after laughing. “Maybe you took for granted the sunshine and the blue skies, and you learn to appreciate those things better. You learn to appreciate the small blessings in life, so that’s what gets me here — a chance because I’ve had that taken away.”
During her illness, Haley had vowed that if she was ever given an opportunity to return to work again, she “would never make a fuss about anything.”
Cancer changed everything. Some of it for the better.
Her outlook on life changed.
Everything she’d been through taught her that today is all you have.
It also made her a different type of leader.
“Not only is she passionate for children,” Blair said, “she’s also compassionate for children.”
“People think I’m crazy,” Haley said, “but, as bad as that journey was, I wouldn’t change one step of it. Not one step.
“It made me a better person.”
Last winter, she was home with her youngest son, Lytton, who was hoping for a snow day. Ann was good either way. Just like when she was sick, she never prayed for herself. She prayed for the broken hearts of others. Because of her faith, she was good either way.
“I do get emotional,” Haley concluded, “but it’s for them.”
“Them” being everyone else in her life.
For Haley, everything about the new John Colemon Elementary School is a miracle.
But without even realizing it, Haley is their miracle.
PHOTO / KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT