By Joseph Goodman
There is no easy way into the heart of Alabama.
It's not near Birmingham. Not even close. It's not near Huntsville, or Mobile, or Montgomery or even Nick Saban's Tuscaloosa. It's not near anything, really, except for an old cotton gin, and a few paper mills.
The heart of Alabama is Sweet Water High School, and it's down a small country road in Marengo County, and then an even smaller country road, and then a piece of road so small and so familiar to the people who travel it, they know exactly where the lazy dogs will be resting every day as they drive by. Down that road, in southwest Alabama, is the heart of this state, and you can't begin to understand it unless you go there.
When it comes to finding Sweet Water, or a place like it, when it comes to searching for the heart of Alabama, the Internet is a useless tool. It will only get you more lost if you try to use it. Indeed, Sweet Water is so small it's not on Google Maps.
But it's there, just like it has always been -- town population: 246.
There is a blinking yellow light in Sweet Water, but the logging trucks don't slow down for it. Small clouds of ditch cotton rise up and dance down main street as they drive past. The local cotton gin has been in operation since 1840. This has been a big year for Alabama cotton, so they might be ginning in Sweet Water until February.
A lot of people have been questioning the heart of Alabama these days, and wondering what it is, and knowing what it is not, so I went for a visit. If there are such things as "Alabama values," Sweet Water High School is where they teach them.
"If this country ran like this school does, we wouldn't have any problems," said Sweet Water principal Phyllis Mabowitz. "We are a picture of our community, and the population here in this part of the state."
I spoke with teachers, coaches and students, the librarian and the mayor, the guys working the cotton gin and the woman who cooks the butterbeans and collard greens at the local diner. Sweet Water is timber country, and 11 tiny communities feed the school. Anyone in the county can attend, but Sweet Water also takes people from outside Marengo County if there's room.
On the eve of Sweet Water's proudest moment in years -- an appearance in the Class 1A state football championship game on Thursday -- I went and spent the day. It is a special place, and easy to love. The people of Sweet Water and Marengo County are proud of their K-12 school, which excels in both academics and athletics. They call it the "treasure in the forest." It truly is.
Sweet Water might be the best little school in Alabama.
"This is a family," said librarian Patricia Jones. "You don't meet a stranger when you come here. The people are just down home."
Jones says she has the best job in the school. She gets to "roll around on the ground" and read to kindergarteners in the morning, and then helps seniors with their literature and research papers in the afternoon.
"Because we are such a small school, we get to influence the kids all the way from preschool to when they graduate from high school," Jones said. "And the big kids get to influence the little kids."
On Tuesday, the library was transformed into a banquet hall for Sweet Water's annual senior luncheon. Jones bragged that 11 of her upperclassmen scored above a 30 on the ACT. For a school with a senior class of 42 in rural Alabama, that's a remarkable number. The next day, a researcher from the University of Missouri visited the school for an ongoing project, and told the Mabowitz, the principal, "I need to come here more often. I sometimes lose hope that there are places still like this in education."
Sweet Water is one of 12 remaining K-12 schools in the state. It is 61 percent white and 37 percent black. Almost 70 percent of those who attend receive free or reduced lunches. Some of the bus routes are over 90-minutes long. Much like the rest of Alabama, Sweet Water is a place shaped by its past, but looking to the future.
"Our parents don't have lots of resources, but the resource they have is work ethic," Mabowitz said. "They expect that from their children, and we see it in our classrooms, and we see it on our playing fields."
In the heart of Alabama, there's a thing people value almost more than a nurturing classroom environment for their children. That thing is high school football. At Sweet Water, they play the game very well. Sweet Water has won eight state championships (1978, 1979, 1982, 1986, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010), and they'll try to make it nine at 3 p.m. on Thursday against Pickens County.
To reach the AHSAA's Super 7 at Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium, Sweet Water had to come from behind against defending state champion Maplesville, and last week's semifinal opponent, Wadley. The bus ride to Wadley took almost four hours, according to Sweet Water's star player, Shamar Lewis.
Lewis plays middle linebacker and running back for Sweet Water. Last week, he returned a fumble for a touchdown and assisted on a game-winning goal-line stand.
Before the football team left for Tuscaloosa and the state championship game, Lewis and his teammates walked through their school's hallway and high-fived the younger students. In Sweet Water's main building, the antique hardwood floors are polished to a dull shine from decades of lacquer and varnish. They creak and moan underfoot.
"We got caring people down here," Shamar said. "They all want to see you do good, and they're tough on you with your work because they want to see you do the best that you can. It's just good people to be around."
Sweet Water's football coach, Pat Thompson, grew up in the area. His father worked in the timber industry, but he was called to coaching. Like most everyone in Sweet Water, Thompson hunts and fishes and goes to church for fun. He was nice enough to entertain this reporter's questions before his team's big game. In the heart of Alabama, they are nothing if not accommodating.
What makes Sweet Water so special?
"The people," he said.
His inspirational motto for this year's team borrows a verse from the Bible, Hebrews 12:1. Finish strong, reads a quote on Thompson's cluttered wall ... "and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us."
The bible verse is tacked above another quote he values as a leader of young people. It's from the famous American psychiatrist, Karl Menninger: "What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches."
Joseph Goodman is a columnist for Alabama Media Group. He's on Twitter @JoeGoodmaJr.