GREENWOOD — There were no Xbox controllers in Cody Chatman's world. Family dinners were far less common than the mischief that seemed to shadow him and his younger brother.
At 11 years old, Cody Chatman's world was a spinning mass of "poor choices."
"When I was in the seventh and eighth grade, I couldn't see my future," says Chatman, his voice trailing off. "I lived a different lifestyle back then."
Pausing to collect himself, Chatman's eyes begin to well. His past is a road less traveled, complete with potholes and despair.
"My mom and my stepdad at the time, I lived with them and my younger brother in Pocola until I was 13," Chatman said. "My mom's a garbage collector for waste management, and my stepdad and brother are in prison."
"He's a really resilient guy," Greenwood assistant superintendent Kevin Hesslen said. "He's had a lot of obstacles in his life. I'm really proud of him."
Hesslen and Chatman met two decades ago at Alma High School when Chatman moved in with his dad, Kenneth, and stepmom Kim.
He befriended an Alma golfer named Chris Sweeney. Chatman's world began to spin in a positive direction.
Just 36, Chatman is sitting in the principal's office at Greenwood High School. His name's not yet on the door.
But there are photos of he and his wife, Becky, and their 2-year-old son, Holden. He's in the chair.
Cody Chatman's arrived.
Actually, his life began to turn for the positive after he signed on to play golf for Buddy Gray's Alma Airedales. He plowed his way through high school, embracing Rodney and Melissa Sweeney's family — and learning not to turn down help when it was offered.
If only his golf game was a little stronger then, jokes Hesslen.
"At the time when he came through, we weren't very good," said Hesslen, Chatman's golf coach his final two years of high school. "I wish he was as good of a golfer then as he is now."
A quarter of a century after his struggles in eastern Oklahoma, the new Greenwood High School principal is settling into his new space in the school's revamped high school administrator's quarters. In the spring, Chatman was tabbed to replace Jerry Efurd as Greenwood's high school principal, a position Efurd held for 20 years.
Chatman's thumbing through pictures from Greenwood's recent state championship baseball game, eager to get them to the school's well-liked baseball coach, Trey Holloway.
"Hang on, I'm trying to get these pictures to coach Holloway," Chatman said. "Come on in!"
A 2000 graduate of Alma High School, Chatman's world didn't just turn on a dime after moving to Crawford County. But when he found his way, he stepped on the gas.
"It took me a long time to make the transition to figure out what was important," Chatman said. "When you're coming from a family in Pocola that doesn't have those type of expectations, to a family in Alma who does, it takes awhile for that switch to click.
"I made a lot of really good friends in Alma, and a lot of them went on to college, and because they went to college I decided I needed to go on to college. Mrs. Sweeney kind of helped me get through that first year of college."
"He was like part of our family," Melissa Sweeney said. "I remember one time all the kids came over to watch a ballgame. There were kids in the living room whooping it up, and Cody was sitting at the bar doing his college algebra. He never looked up. It was unusual to see a kid doing that when all his buddies were goofing around.
"I didn't realize before that point how dedicated he was."
Following Sweeney's lead, Chatman pursued a teaching degree. He also went full-in with his master's in educational leadership and doctorate degree — earning the first one offered by Arkansas Tech.
Dr. Chatman wasn't the only one in his family who sought education, either.
His stepmom, Kim Chatman, teaches at Alma Intermediate School. His sister, Morgan, teaches at Alma Middle School.
"My stepmom was a para (professional) for quite a few years before she went back and got her degree," Chatman said. "In 2005, when I graduated from Arkansas Tech, she and I stepped into education at the same time. My best friend, his mom (Sweeney) was a teacher, too. She and her son (Chris) and I were really close. I kind of grew up in the Sweeney house."
"He is a perfect example that you can be anything you want to be," Rodney Sweeney said. "You would have never have thought he would have accomplished what he's been able to accomplish."
Following a four-year stint at Dardanelle, where he taught seventh-grade history, Chatman landed in Russellville. On a whim, he applied for an assistant principal's job.
And, he got it.
To his surprise, the kid who very easily could have taken the wrong fork in the road became Russellville Middle School Principal's Al Harpenau's assistant.
"I didn't think I had a shot in the world," Chatman said. "I was young; I was like 26 or 27, and I had only been teaching for four years."
Chatman served two years under Harpenau before being named Russellville Middle School principal.
That's when his old golf coach got wind of his success story.
"I had already accepted the principal's position at Russellville Middle School, and Kevin Hesslen, my old golf coach from high school, called and said, 'I'd love to have you down here,'" Chatman said. "Given the opportunity, I couldn't pass it up."
"I had heard great things about him from the Russellville School District," Hesslen said. "He was a young guy that was very focused and driven. Once he puts his mind to something, it's going to get done.
"You don't have to tell him to work."
"One thing I noticed about him was that everything didn't come easy to him," Melissa Sweeney said. "He was kind of an average student until his senior year and first few years of college when he really started to focus and become dedicated. Of all the kids that came through with my son, I'm probably the most proud of him. He has really amazed me.
"I'm sure they're (Greenwood) really impressed with him."
Replacing a legend
Replacing Efurd as the school's principal is something Chatman plans to tackle head on, just as he's done with every other position.
But he can't become Jerry Efurd.
"When I think of Greenwood, I think of Jerry Efurd," Chatman said. "The good thing about Jerry is that he knows everybody; he knows their history. He's a people person.
"If someone walked into this office upset or angry, by the time they left they were laughing and talking about old times. He (Efurd) had the charisma in order to do that. It's going to be a little harder for me to do those types of things, because I'm not from Greenwood."
"It'll be different; they are two different people," Hesslen said. "Jerry's one of the best people persons you'll ever meet. Cody's good with people, too, but Cody's got a little different skill-set. jerry was really good about seeing the big picture and making sure kids had a good high school experience.
"We were fortunate that Cody was able to watch him and see how he handled things."
"He's going to be able to mentor some kids that may not have everything going for them, and may not have people that push them," added Sweeney. "He's going to be really great."
"I love people; I get along with people," Chatman said. "I'll try to do the best for every kid and every family that I possibly can, but I don't have that cultural history like Jerry Efurd does."