A student who started life anew, and triumphed

Nomble Coleman conducts a meeting of the Black Student Union at Downingtown West High School. As the president of the group, she led planning for its Black History Month program. She is also a Girl Scout leader, a violinist and African American Future Achiever.

Five years ago, Nomble Coleman lay in a hospital bed after grueling 11-hour spinal surgery, wondering if she'd ever learn to walk again.

Once she did, "she basically started her whole life over again," her father, Ernie Coleman, said.

Since then, she's earned numerous titles: star student. Girl Scout leader. President of Downingtown High West's Black Student Union. Violinist in the school symphony orchestra. Leader of Tomorrow with the National Black MBA Association.

Last week, the Downingtown High West student rose to claps and cheers and strode to a podium to receive an award and a new title - African American Future Achiever.

"Not giving back is not an option," Coleman, now 18, said before receiving the prize given by Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Flanked by her parents, Ernie and Linda, Nomble (pronounced NOM-BLAY, her name is Xhosan for "beauty") Coleman flashed her trademark megawatt grin and read the personal statement she had written as a part of her application.

Ernie and Linda couldn't help but think back to their daughter's spinal fusion surgery, an operation made necessary by her severe scoliosis.

The family took a year to decide whether to go through with the operation - Linda Coleman suffers from the condition too and felt that her daughter's life could be full without the risky procedure.

But second and third options - and, ultimately Nomble's own decision - persuaded her parents to let the girl go ahead with the procedure. The waiting at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia is still fresh in their minds - nurses coming in every hour to give them updates, family trooping in and out.

"It felt like a week," Ernie Coleman said of the wait. "They prepare you for it, but you're never ready."

The whole family, including Idris, now 15, and Adanne, 11, lived at the Ronald McDonald House for the duration of Nomble's hospital stay.

She was 13 at the time, but Coleman knew the risks.

"I was scared. I didn't know what was going to happen on the surgery table - I could have been paralyzed," she said.

What Linda Coleman remembers most from that summer is watching her daughter learn to walk again. Rather than give in to setbacks, Coleman approached the task with her characteristic grit, and banished her parents' fears.

It is an experience that remains with Coleman today.

Rather than hide her scar, a thin line that shoots up nearly the entire length of her back, she chooses to show it to the world, not shying away from low-backed garments and two-piece bathing suits.

"It's a daily reminder of who I am," Coleman said. "I know what I can come through and what I can overcome. Nothing's going to keep me down."

That was evident when she collected her prize at a ceremony at the Hyatt Regency in Philadelphia.

Coleman said she was surprised by the award, now in its sixth year, given annually to 20 students from around the region. She mailed the application close to the deadline, and didn't think she had a shot of winning.

The hectic pace of her life kept her from thinking of it too much. Besides, she was in the midst of planning what for her is the highlight of her school year - the Black Student Union's Black History Month program.

After five months of planning, about 150 people from the community came to hear rap and spoken word, gospel and jazz - a celebration of African American music. For Coleman and the club, it was a triumph.

"I learned how to be a leader," Coleman said of her experience. "You have to keep on your members and make sure everyone's where they're supposed to be."

There are relatively few students of color at Downingtown West (4 percent of the school district's 11,000-plus students are African American) and Coleman sees the Black Student Union as a valuable resource for the school. In addition to planning their seminal event, the group takes college tours and holds discussion sessions.

Leading the Black Student Union meeting yesterday, Coleman was at ease in front of 25 students. She steered the meeting through a talk about coming trips, evaluation of the February event, and on to the meat of the gathering - a discussion of stereotypes.

"Do you think all stereotypes are true? Are they all false? Maybe it's a little bit of both," she said, nodding as hands shot up for volunteers to join the dialogue.

"I want to share - let everyone else know what African American culture is, not based on stereotypes. The real deal. Our students aren't exposed. It's our responsibility to do this," Coleman said.

Teacher Brenda Wilson, the club's adviser, has known Coleman for four years.

"She's really savvy, and a spectacular leader - she jumps in there and everyone listens," Wilson said.

Coleman is dreaming big - she's deciding between schools that include Howard University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Johnson and Wales - and she's certain a career in business, complete with an MBA, is in her future.

After school, she envisions starting her own business. She's not sure what kind of firm it will be, but she knows one thing.

"I just know it's going to be big," she said. "Expect great things."



For an interview with Nomble Coleman and a list of all winners, go to http://go.philly.com/nomble

Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com. To comment, or to ask a question, go to http://go.philly.com/schooltalk.