The picture caught my eye immediately – children playing on a football field during a summer youth football camp captured in a moment of pure joy and excitement. It is a remarkable picture that tells a story reaching far beyond a week of football practice. For me, the moment captures a culmination of history.
To most who flipped through the newspaper that day, the picture may have been given only a momentary glance with no second look and certainly no second thoughts. Children play in Owensboro, Kentucky all the time and this would seem no different from any other. But for myself and thousands of other people who have worked for and/or graduated from the Owensboro (Kentucky) Public School System – the picture captures a century and a half of a proud heritage. It is a legacy of bringing children from all races and backgrounds together into one remarkable place and there offering them a chance at a life beyond anything they could have ever expected while together achieving more than anyone could ever hope. Of all the things I can look back on in my life, my personal history with the Owensboro School System, one that both my children proudly experienced as well, may be the one thing I am most proudly identified with. Most people know me as “Mr. McFarland” from Owensboro Middle School, where I served for twenty years. When I am home I still hear young people calling my name though I have been retired now for two years. But I was just one of thousands who worked to make that extraordinary school system extraordinary. And that picture captures a moment that tells me all the work through the years has accomplished something far better and far more sustainable than simple knowledge of the ABCs.
Look deep into that picture and you will see kids living life together. They are black and white, small and large, heavy, skinny, all wearing different clothes from different stores who live in different houses with different families who survive on different levels of income. It is probable that some are rich, some are poor, some may be gifted as students, some may require special services. But here they are together. Owensboro Schools (like all other schools in America) have been challenged since the early 1960s to accept students of all ethnic backgrounds. It has not always been easy. There have been tensions through the years and certainly more to follow – there is no denying that. But here in this picture you see children who do not seem to care what the skin pigmentation is of the others. They are playing – and in this moment of what looks like complete joy and liberation, the concern about a racial divide seems light years from their thinking – as it should be. Owensboro schools have challenged their students to live out their lives color blind with regard to race and though that challenge is ever-present – look at this picture and tell me if we have made progress. Absolutely!
But there is more to this than simply students together in a picture. This is an unscripted, candid shot where no one is posing or trying to look their best. And that is what makes it so special. The smiles captured in this moment are contagious and this is what parents pray for each morning they send their children to school. Don’t be fooled. Parents want their children to be successful but what they really want is for their child to be happy. Here I am speaking as a parent myself. If I was a parent of one of these students captured in this photo – I would sleep much better tonight having seen their happiness first hand. Without knowing it – this photographer gave those parents the greatest gift of all. The saying that a parent is only as happy as their unhappiest child is true and Owensboro schools may never give parents a better report card of their children than to simply say – they are happy.
But there is more still. The jersey-wearing young man laughing in the center of the picture is a former student of mine that I remember as a middle schooler. I remember him to be a young man not blessed with great size or athletic ability but one who had heart. He never backed down from a challenge and coaches could always depend on him giving you everything he had. Owensboro schools have won nearly thirty state championships in their history because of students just like him. Certainly there have been outstanding athletes – some All-Americans and future pros. But always it was young men and women of not great size or skill that won championships. They won time after time because someone convinced them they were just as good as anyone else. And with that – they became believers that they could achieve great things and then did. This picture captures a moment in which that young man with the heart of a lion passes on that tradition to the next generation of “Red Devils” and now we can look and wonder who will be the next champion.
Very soon a new school year will begin back home in Owensboro, Kentucky and a new generation will begin their tenure as students of the Owensboro Public School system. In that group of students there may be future doctors and lawyers – maybe a president will even emerge. The truth is we really don’t know what those students will achieve in their lifetime. It would be my desire that somewhere along the way in their journey a moment will be captured much like this where they will be seen as happy, healthy and loving the life that stretches out before them. Let Owensboro Schools forever be the place that makes those moments happen.
Forever a Red Devil, Steve McFarland