Alisa Franklin stood at the corner of the gym as fifth-graders from Jenny Findell’s class walked towards her, grabbing a spot in front of a large screen.
One student stopped as she neared Franklin.
“I’m so glad you’re back,” she said.
It was three days into the new school year and Hanby Elementary’s physical education teacher greeted many of the familiar faces, some of them by name.
These students last saw Franklin in April, a month before the end of the school year. They had gathered at her desk, as they typically do before the start of class, when Franklin explained why she had to leave early: She was having brain surgery.
Colorful inflatable obstacle courses, slides and games filled the open fields at Westerville South High School. Parent volunteers stood alongside each station. WSHS athletes walked towards a tent where organizers could explain their roles of the day.
The stage was set for the first combined field day for Hanby and Emerson elementary students at the high school.
For months, Franklin envisioned a space where she could bring elementary students and their high school peers together. A combined field day gave the younger students an opportunity to see the high school athletes in their element and catch a glimpse of what awaits them when they get older. For the older students, it was a chance to serve as role models and relive fond memories of past field days.
And for Franklin, the event linked the two worlds of her teaching and coaching careers.
Her departure was short-lived: She returned to Westerville after three years to be closer to family and in 2020, she was back in the district as an elementary physical education teacher at Pointview and Hawthorne. She moved to Hanby and Emerson elementaries when a position opened up the following year.
And in October, long after she had mapped out many of her plans for the coming year, Franklin was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer.
The sounds of kids at play and industrial-sized fans echoed onto WSHS’ parking lot. Franklin stepped out of the car with a baseball cap on her head and a timer on the clock.
One hour. That’s how much time she negotiated with her mother, who drove her to Hanby and Emerson's field day festivities.
It has been four weeks since Franklin’s brain surgery. Her doctor declared the procedure a success and prescribed rest for the first two weeks of recovery before she could begin moving again. She walked in short bouts for days to rebuild her stamina when she finally stepped onto WSHS’ open field.
The visit marked her first school appearance since her surgery and served as an opportunity to wish students a happy summer before they wrapped up the school year. Amid the bustle of hundreds of students, parents and staff members on the field, it didn’t take long for someone to spot her.
Teachers embraced her. Parents welcomed her back. Students waved hello, some wrapping their arms around her for a quick hug. They told her how excited they were to see her. They wanted to know how she was feeling. One student asked to see her scar.
"It's like a hockey stick," she told him, removing her cap to reveal the shaved part of her head where the surgery occurred.
Franklin has shared every step of her cancer journey with her Hanby family since her first diagnosis in 2021. Her classes reach every student in the building so she wanted to inform the entire school community and be in front of the situation.
The principal sent a letter to families, explaining Franklin’s diagnosis and her plans to continue teaching while undergoing treatment. The school’s media specialist shared children’s books to classroom teachers to help students understand cancer — and what physical changes to expect to see in Franklin during her treatment.
The response was immediate.
Parents and staff members embraced her with support, from encouraging words to hand-written notes and drawings from kids. People shared emotional stories about loved ones living with cancer or had gone through it.
“One of the things when you’re stuck with cancer, you have no idea what you need at that point in time. I didn’t know what I needed. And someone would say, ‘Hey, I’m here and I’m going to make you food.’ I couldn’t have asked for anything else.”
As the chemotherapy treatment started and the school year progressed, Franklin posted periodic health updates threaded with optimism on her personal and her class Facebook pages. She didn’t shy away from a question or a conversation with a student who had also been touched by cancer.
Since her first diagnosis, Franklin kicked-off a school-wide shoe tying competition for students after teachers noticed how they were struggling with the task.
She launched a Fitness Drumming Project with Hanby’s music teacher, where students could pound on the large vinyl stability balls with pool noodles as drum sticks — an activity where students can learn about steady beats while getting a workout at the same time.
She organized the Hanby Olympics, a school fundraiser where students spend part of the day playing games and activities. She introduced Hanby’s first first lacrosse unit last year thanks to a grant from USA Lacrosse, which provided a classroom set of equipment — worth up to $800.
And for months, she planned the combined field day for Hanby and Emerson students.
During the event, Franklin walked through the field, watching students exercising the skills they covered in class: climbing, running, tossing, throwing, catching and maneuvering through obstacles.
As teachers led their classes through the different activities, high school students and parents ran the stations. It was what Franklin had hoped — a community of people to support kids in their element.
Among the popular stations of the day: a game of Sharks and Minnows, where “minnows” ran from one field to the other without being tagged by a “shark.”
WSHS senior and volleyball player Lauryn Bowie patrolled the sidelines, watching kids running across the field to make sure they were following the rules and being safe. When she saw Franklin approaching, she headed her direction and wrapped her arms around her.
Franklin and her husband, Dave, coached Bowie for years when she was a member of Mintonette Sports Volleyball Club’s 16 Open Team. She had still coached when she first learned of her breast cancer diagnosis and she was as candid with the players as she was with her Hanby students.
Then Franklin showed up to her first practice without hair after chemotherapy treatment.
“She looked completely different,” she said. “It’s sad, but she’s still smiling. It’s the same old Alisa. If you didn’t know her, you wouldn’t know anything happened to her.”
“To see her, I knew she would be OK. It’s Alisa. She’s the strongest person I know. And seeing her go through it, it makes me so sad but I know she can handle it. She can handle it better than anyone.”
The two have kept in touch after the season ended, with Bowie reaching out to Franklin for advice about playing volleyball at the collegiate level. Franklin played volleyball at Lee University; Bowie will do the same at Virginia University this year.
“She always put the girls before herself,” Bowie said. “She’s very selfless.”
Bowie was all too familiar with cancer. Her mother faced it too when Bowie was in middle school.
After she shared details about herself, she dove into her rules and expectations, assigned their spot on the gym floor at the start of class moving forward and led them through their first warm up of the year.
Then, she organized students in teams for various relay races to get their heart rate up and build camaraderie.
Franklin spent the summer gradually building her stamina since her brain surgery, taking two-mile walks and swimming at the Westerville Recreation Center. Still, she is approaching the new school year with uncertainty.