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Student Engagement

Medora: A High School Sports Documentary That Transcends Its Genre

March 20, 2014
Photo credit: Beachside Films

It's a small town in southern Indiana's beautiful farm country. Once a thriving metropolis, it's now one of many across America that economic forces have reduced to struggling for survival. The local high school population, reduced to a handful of kids, refuses to surrender its identity by being absorbed into a large consolidated school district. Formerly the town's greatest pride and still a center of hope that holds it together is the high school basketball team. Their record last year was 0-22.

Welcome to the world of Medora, a movie that will be shown March 31 on PBS' Independent Lens. There's no Hoosiers-like hyper-dramatic excitement here. This is a movie by Andy Cohen and Davy Rothbart made with integrity and unusual intimacy about adolescents facing enormous challenges, about a town with enormous pride, and about people with great generosity. Dedicated to small towns and communities across the U.S., it's a little film with a big story that's perfect for viewing and discussion by both teachers and students.

The "Other" America

There has been an abundance of good films recently focusing on the struggles of inner city schools and poor kids of color. These have provided excellent and important resources for educators. But there is another America, an America of poor white kids struggling with different obstacles. Medora takes us into that world. It also challenges us to think about and respond to a crisis facing many small towns across this country.

The two major factories that supported Medora have closed, crippling the town's economy, creating a depression that extends beyond the economy into the lives of its remaining 500 people. As one resident put it, "This town's on the ropes." What they have is their pride, their sense of community, and a woebegotten basketball team that helps bring the town together.

Loss and Hope

Although the basketball team's quest for a victory is the narrative thread holding the film together, these boys' lives raise it to another level. The film directors and their director of photography, Rachel Counce, establish a relationship with the kids, their parents and varied townsfolk that takes us inside their lives, minds and hearts. We live with these people, and they open themselves to us.

The Medora Hornets are a small team, drawn from a male student population of 33, still haunted by its 2010 record. Their struggle to win a single game is a microcosm of the town's fight for survival. And one of the reasons for this struggle is that the school refuses to consolidate. It wants to maintain its identity. So they play every game against schools six to ten times their size. Their caring and spirited coach, Justin Gilbert, somehow keeps them believing in themselves, even as they continue to lose.

Inside Look at Struggle

The focus of the film is the kids. There’s Rusty Rogers, left virtually homeless due to his mom's alcohol problems and taken in by his teammate and best friend, Zack Fish. Zack's mom can't think of letting Rusty live on the streets. We ride with Rusty as he shows us the little house where he once lived when his parents were together.

The team's shooting guard, Dylan McSoley, has never met his father and also lives on the edge of poverty. In one moment he tells us about a teammate who can't afford to replace his torn shoes. We're intimate participants as Dylan tells us, "I feel incomplete. I sometimes wonder how my life would be if I knew my Dad." We're there when he calls his dad and leaves a message that begins, "You don't know me, but . . ." And we're there when his dad shows up at his graduation unannounced, although that's the first and last time he sees him. It's Dylan whose expressive face and transparency still remains with me.

There’s also Robby Armstrong, a farmer's son, who wants to be the first in his family to graduate high school and go on to college, and Chaz Cowles, arrested on a gun charge and still struggling to avoid trouble with the law. He tells us that he plays basketball to try staying out of trouble.

Town folks tell us, "We're like a family," "This town is home," and "All we have is our basketball team." We feel that we're part of their decision to not consolidate the school, perhaps their last bastion of community, pride and individual identity, into a large school system. As one member of the community says, "These small towns are what this country is based on, and they are fading away."

We love these kids. We root for them to win a game, but even more to win the battle some of them are fighting to overcome personal adversity, maintain hope and move on to fulfilling lives. As one kid says, "I think we're part of a dying breed . . . It's hard."

We care about these people who support each other, and about the kids in their struggle with shared adversity. "We are like a family" is a line that echoes throughout the film. It's the generosity and sense of people supporting each other in their adversity that grabs you.

The Film in the Classroom

This sense of community and generosity raise the film to a level of importance that transcends films about education and sports. It's about the hundreds, if not thousands, of small American towns struggling to stay alive. These themes are what make Medora an important film for teachers to consider viewing and discussing in the classroom, especially in social studies and humanities classes. And there is an excellent discussion guide for classroom and community meeting use available online for free.

Shown to kids in similar towns, it will evoke personal and emotional responses. I can imagine some kids responding to Medora as some did when I screened The New Public at an inner city school: "That is my life!"

But even in schools and communities that are very different from Medora, there is much to play with. Here are my ideas:

  1. What role can sports play in motivating some kids to become winners in their lives? Do our teams help create a feeling of pride that spills over into other aspects of our lives?
  2. When I use this film, I plan to have students role-play some of the kids in the film. Dylan would be a good one. I'd have another student play the role of a teacher or counselor helping him deal with his missing dad and how to connect with him.
  3. I like the idea of students debating the topic, "Resolved: We should consolidate with a larger district."
  4. I'd like them to discuss how these kids can get on with the rest of their lives when the town they've grown up in is dying.
  5. I see them discussing generosity and community. The people in this film truly support each other. Does this happen in our community? If not, how can we help make it happen? In this regard, I might assign the recent column by Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times, "The Compassion Gap."
  6. And of course there is the question: "Is there anything we can do to help towns like Medora?" It introduces two topics -- our responsibility to the invisible others whose lives we indirectly effect, and what political actions contribute to helping and hurting these towns.

But please start by checking out the film, either March 31 on PBS or via the film's website. Check out that discussion guide. The DVD is also available. I love this important little film, and I hope you’ll consider using it in your school.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Physical Education
  • 9-12 High School

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