My first job was when I was 12 or 13, picking potatoes in the fields of southern Bavaria. The tractor would plow up the plants so the potatoes would lie on the ground in the dirt. We used baskets and walked bent over, with bare hands, picking up potatoes and filling up our baskets. When the basket was full, it was just light enough that one person could pick it up and carry it to the trailer behind a tractor parked off to the side. All day long, we would be bent over at the hip, walking slowly along the rows, up the field, and then back down the field. Getting up and stretching to carry the basket was a relief. The days were endless. The hours crawled on. Flies and gnats would buzz around our sweaty faces. And our backs were on fire. The next day, we’d do it all again, all day.
My first job was also my hardest job ever. I learned what work means when I was 12 years old working in those Bavarian fields. When I now drive up Highway 99 in the Californian Central Valley, and I look over the endless fields with Hispanic laborers hunched over, tending to the plants or harvesting, I know what their work is like. I know they work harder every day than I have done since that first job at age 12.
McFarland is a small farming town north of Bakersfield on Highway 99. I have driven through it many times on my way driving to Fresno or Modesto. I have never exited the freeway and stopped.
But now, after watching the movie McFarland, USA, I will stop next time and look around.
The movie tells the true story of Jim White (Kevin Costner), a high school teacher and football coach who has trouble with his temper, and thus he has lost job after job. In 1987, he moves to McFarland with his wife and two daughters to take a job at the high school. They go through culture shock. The all-Latino school population does not have much respect for the new white coach. They call him Blanco. He gets dismissed from the football team within the first week.
When he observes some of his students as they run home after school so they can work on the fields with their families, he notices that they can run fast. After a bit of investigating, he decides to start a high school track team and hand-pick seven boys. Whether these boys who just attend high school between work shifts can become athletes is not clear to anyone when they first get started. Their families, their community, their school, everyone thinks of the boys as day laborers that have to go to school as an inconvenience.
But coach White reaches through the outer layers, and touches their souls. Soon the boys find their spirit and their hearts soar, and they run. Their successes not only transform their own lives, but they give their school and their entire community a new purpose and spirit.
I was glad that the movie theater was dark, because that allowed me to let the tears run freely. I found appreciation for the Hispanic culture built around family, family values and hard work. I enjoyed every minute of McFarland, USA and when the credits rolled I remembered the endless rows of potato fields of my youth, and I was glad that I had had the opportunity to learn about hard work, dedication and willpower.