The other night I enjoyed the movie “Friday Night Lights” – a 2004 movie starring Billy Bob Thornton about the economically depressed west Texas town of Odessa and its ‘heroic’ high school football team, the Permian High Panthers. There is also a currently running TV serial by the same name with some of the same actors. The movie (and TV story) is interesting to me because the story is about an Odessa football team facing overwhelming odds culminating with a trip to the Texas state championships in Houston - no small feat given the popularity and brutality of high school football in Texas. But I am attracted to the movie, also, because of the memories evoked by the scenes of Odessa and where a lot of the football takes place and where I had one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. No, I’m not dreaming of heroic fantasies for myself, but I am going to talk about something that is a part of me - a part of me that I think both Rich Foye, Kim Caron, and Francis Baran can appreciate in addition to the football.
In early June, 1998, I sat on the 50 yard line in Ratliff stadium (seating capacity of 20,000) as 500-plus seniors from Odessa High, mostly named Gonzales, marched onto the field in single file in long red robes. It was a warm splendid twilight evening, a night when football was mentioned only once. Yes, the Odessa High Broncos had beaten the cross-town Permian Panthers that year in football (fall of ’97) against all odds – the only time in that decade and for years to come – a big deal for Ector County.
The movie ends with a retrospective of the fate of the key players after high school. Most of the stars ended up dropping out of college (if they got there in the first place) and taking blue collar jobs in west Texas around Odessa, but the linebacker, Chavez, who was taunted (“hey Mexican”) by the larger players from Carter Dallas graduated from Harvard and became a lawyer who eventually set up his practice … yes, back in Odessa.
There were two routes to Odessa that I would take. From California, I would drive out of California from Barstow, into Arizona at Kingman, through Arizona and down to Route 10 by Tucson, then head south from Las Cruces, New Mexico, skirting the Rio Grande into El Paso, and then head east on Route 20 into Odessa. From Colorado Springs, I would drive due south on Route 25 into the volcanic Capulins of northeast NM, then over into north Texas and head due south West of Amarillo halfway down the state to Odessa. The closer I got to Odessa from any direction, the more desolate the terrain became. Within a 70-80 mile radius of Odessa one begins to pass more oil well pumps, some active and some not, and smell the natural gas that leaked in to the air from the gas ‘mines’. Finally, I would arrive on the shabby outskirts of Odessa, reassured that I hadn’t completely lost touch with civilization. There are some nice residential sections in Odessa but the grass is dry and sharp and shrubbery is thorny. Odessa is the center of the Permian basin heavily mined for oil in the early and mid 20th century but, in the later part of the century, the oil industry crashed leaving Odessa and Midland in sort of semi-depression.
On that night in early June, 1998, none of this mattered and football was a distant memory for a father that had come to see his daughter, Christina, graduate from Odessa High. As the students filed into their seats below me on the 50 yard line, from Z through the Gonzaleses down to A, I saw Christina second from last in the line of over 500 graduating seniors. I understood this because she had missed being the Valedictorian of her class by a few thousandths in her grade point average. Christina is no genius, and I’m not either (poor student to boot), so the only explanation could be that she had worked very hard to do this. She is and was also from her father’s perspective gentle, kind, and pretty.
I should have known that Christina would always be “easy” after the precedent was set at birth. She was born two minutes after her mom and I got to the hospital with just a nurse and me assisting – no sweat or pain involved. Early in elementary school, I noticed that Christina, as quiet and shy as she was, thoroughly enjoyed being on stage. Her joy was always displayed by the depth of her two dimples on both cheeks and her genuine smile. Later on she took lead parts in the local repertory theatre that would put Woodstock to shame. I was astounded by her poise on stage and the confidence that she projected to the audience. In her senior year at Odessa High she went to the State finals at the University of Texas in Austin with her acting troupe only to be disqualified in the final event because they went over the time limit. Needless to say she was unhappy. I could not help but reflect on the analogy of her loss to the ending of “Friday Night Lights” when Permian fell short within a few inches of passing the goal line to win the game.
Christina made the best of college but changed her mind about going to med school. She decided to marry early , get her Masters in Education, and do what she loves and does well – teaching high school drama in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Over the years I came to understand one of the things that motivated her to study hard to get A’s. She conscientiously felt that it was her duty to help fund her college education. So she did. This is why she would work on her homework until 2 in the morning to maximize her performance in high school. Once she got to college she felt it was important to finish up in less than four years to reduce the cost by a semester to her parents although I never discussed this with her.
I would never try to compare Christina to others or other students to her. All kids are different and each has their own special needs and gifts. In Woodstock, as we debate the pro’s and con’s of our education system, lets not forget who we are trying to benefit. This is not about the taxpayers and politicians. It’s all about the kids.