A visitor to Highland Middle School has no trouble finding the art room. Stretching down the hall toward the main office is a floor-to-ceiling gallery of unusually high caliber student art -- papier-mache masks, "new product" advertisements, collages and colorful self portraits.
In the classroom at the end of the hallway on the right, art teacher Shana Cochran is showing a handful of students prints of the French postimpressionist painter Paul Cezanne's work. She greets the visitor with a warm smile and invites him to view the clay figures her students have just sculpted.
"Can you tell which one is mine?" a student calls out. "It's the biggest one."
Cochran laughs. "Aren't they good?" she asks. She could be talking about the sculptures or the students; she is enthusiastic about both.
A good sense of humor comes in handy for a middle school teacher, and Cochran laughs easily.
In fact, she laughs in the face of death.
Cochran had, in her 40 years, already endured more than her share of adversity when she learned on Jan. 31, 1999, that she had a brain tumor. Her reaction: "I just started laughing," she said.
Now, six years and two brain surgeries later, Cochran continues to teach. Also a skilled painter, she is now more prolific than ever before.
Cochran, who makes her home near Mammoth Spring, first knew something was wrong when she began having dizzy spells. "I never had a headache. What I had was a warming sensation down my left arm," she said.
One day she had an intense sensation while traveling from Cherokee Elementary School, where she was teaching part of the day at that time, to the middle school. She thought she was going to pass out.
She was worried about overreacting, but called her physician, Dr. George Jackson, as a precaution. "I told him, 'I'm trying not to be hysterical about this,'" she recalls.
Jackson told her to come in to Eastern Ozarks Regional Health System for tests. There the tumor was discovered.
About the size of an egg, the tumor rested between the two lobes of Cochran's brain. Physicians could not tell her how long the tumor had been there. "It could have been there two weeks or 10 years," she said.
Her surgery was scheduled just 11 days later. She had little time to prepare emotionally.
"I didn't know whether to be terrified," she said. "I had a hard time taking it all in. I've never known anyone with a brain tumor, much less two."
Although the tumor did not turn out to be cancerous, it was life threatening, she said. The surgical procedure had only recently been developed; had the tumor been found five years earlier surgeons would not have been able to save her.
Cochran entered surgery clutching photographs of her twin sons, Kib and Kyle, and her stepgranddaughter, Grace. But she did not fear for her life.
"I've always known it was not up to me, it's up to God," she said. "I was never afraid I was going to die. I was afraid I would come out and not be myself."
Her colleagues say she was indeed her old self when she returned to the classroom just four weeks after surgery, even though she wore a wig to cover her shaven head.
"The kids were marvelous. They were so protective," she said. Through dogged determination, Cochran regained her strength and resumed her busy schedule.
Then the tumor came back.
The new tumor, discovered during a routine MRI in September of 2003, filled the same spot where the first tumor had been removed. Cochran admits she was more afraid the second time.
"They didn't know if it had turned sinister," she said.
After her first surgery, Cochran had stepped up her fitness regimen that included aerobics and weight training. Her surgeon, Dr. Mark Linsky, attributed her strong recovery the second time to her physical condition.
"I came out better the second time than the first," she said.
Two brain surgeries might be enough to sideline someone else. But to Cochran it was just another couple of obstacles to overcome. She had learned the art of facing difficulties with a positive attitude already as a child.
Born in Nebraska, she attended 11 different schools growing up. Her mother suffered from schizophrenia, but it was not diagnosed until years later. (Her mother, still living, has learned to control her disorder with carefully regulated prescription medication.)
Her parents divorced when Cochran was 12, and she went to live with an uncle and aunt. She was separated from her only sibling, a younger sister, at that time.
"I really feel like my whole life was 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,'" she said, with a mischevious grin.
She went to college to study broadcast communications, but dropped out to get married. She and her husband had twin sons. But the marriage did not last. When Kib and Kyle were 3 she found herself left to support a family as a single mom without a college education.
"I knew I had to make a living for myself and my kids," she said.
She had been working as a teacher's aide in the Thayer school system, where, she said, "I fell in love with education."
She returned to college while working to support her sons and earned a teaching degree with an art concentration. She also remarried -- to Ray Bob Cochran, a Mammoth Spring native whose son, Chris, also living at Mammoth Spring, has an internal medicine practice affiliated with Ozarks Medical Center in West Plains.
Shana Cochran landed a job teaching art in the Couch, Mo., school system in 1989, where she remained through 1994, when she joined the Highland School District. Her life seemed to be back on track.
Then she underwent a hysterectomy in July 1999 that left her unable to use her left leg. Cochran simply refused to be disabled. She began physical therapy but had to use a walker to get around. The therapy evolved into the exercise routine she continues to today.
Then, less than a year later (and less than a year prior to her first brain surgery) the Cochrans' house burned. The combination of fire and water damage resulted in the loss of 90 percent of their belongings.
On top off all that, she had emergency gall bladder surgery in 2002, between her two brain surgeries.
Yet her colleagues say the warm smile and ready laugh never left her face.
Middle school counselor Kim Sample said watching Cochran face each new struggle with courage and humor helps fellow faculty and staff put their own struggles into perspective.
"She never complained," Sample said. "The kids got the best, no matter what. She helped me see that the kids need you, they need you to be whole."
Her colleague and friend, middle school librarian Jan Haney, said, "What I find amazing is the work she gets out of the those kids." She said Cochran is able to unlock the hidden artistic talent of some students who haven't enjoyed much success in school, thereby boosting their self esteem. "Some of these kids -- that's where they excel," Haney said.
Haney is also a big fan of Cochran's own artwork. In fact, she was host for a show of Cochran's paintings at her home in Cherokee Village Feb. 3.
Cochran fulfilled a lifelong dream of studying art in Florence, Italy, in the summer of 2004. She finds personal satisfaction in developing her own artistic expression.
"She's just blossomed. Maybe one more surgery and we'll have a Picasso," Haney quipped.
Cochran may make light of her suffering -- "I've always made fun of my 'little brain,'" she joked -- but she has also developed an increased awareness of what matters in life.
"When you go in and make funeral arrangements and wonder who's going to show up -- you cling to those people a little more," she said.
She continues to monitor her health with periodic checkups. She keeps up her exercise and eats lots of fruits and vegetables. But it is not so much to prolong her life as to make the most of it.
"I believe I am here for a purpose," she said. "Maybe to help some student through art to keep him from throwing his life away."
Cochran said she was "overwhelmed and humbled" by her selection as a "community hero," one of 10 who will be honored March 7 at the Triumph of the Human Spirit banquet in Jonesboro.
But those who have watched the triumph of Shana Cochran's spirit say no one is more deserving. Haney said, "This is her time."