Parents pulling up to Ooltewah Middle School on Oct. 17 may have been surprised to find a mass of pink ribbons decorating the building. But no one was more surprised than OMS Band Director Tracy Coats.
"I was just absolutely overwhelmed," she said. "I kind of just burst into tears when I walked up the sidewalk."
A month earlier, Coats had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, but that Tuesday, students and teachers rallied together to deliver a clear message: "You don't have to fight alone."
When Coats approached the building that morning — the day before her first chemotherapy treatment — she found that message of solidarity everywhere.
In addition to pink ribbon strung up from the door to the surrounding trees, she also found encouraging messages like "I pink I can, I pink I can" displayed on the school's electronic sign, and she was led to a pep rally where she found all the teachers and about one-third of the students wearing pink T-shirts.
"It's like they couldn't wait for me to walk into the building," said Coats, recalling the teachers' swan hats and tutus with a laugh. "Instead of being fearful, it kind of empowered me to face the next day head-on knowing that I had this whole team of people praying for me and behind me."
In late November, Coats took a temporary leave of absence from OMS, but the support from fellow teachers and staff has never wavered. Principal Chrissy Easterly still sends text messages to check in on Coats during and after each chemotherapy treatment, and a handful of the faculty have started dropping by her home to bring her meals. Some of the teachers even helped her organize a Christmas-themed flash mob to cheer up nurses and other patients during her most recent chemotherapy session Dec. 20.
To ensure the students still have a quality band program in her absence, Coats said she recruited the best instructors she could find: retired band directors Jenny D'Andrea of Hixson Middle School and Bobby Dugan of Brown Middle School.
"They said they wouldn't do it for any other band program other than ours," Coats laughed. "They've really given of themselves to come out of retirement to do this."
Coats said the teachers' show of support is a testament to all the great things happening at OMS, despite the bad rap she said public schools sometimes get.
"The community within our building is a kind, caring, strong community of people that really care about each other and I think that's kind of unique, even among schools these days," Coats said.
Coats hopes to return to school on March 3.
Email Myron Madden at firstname.lastname@example.org.