Thursday, February 7, 2013

Student Reflections on the Collection: RFK Funeral Train Rediscovered

This academic year, the Addison education department has been fortunate to host three Phillips Academy students as they complete their Work Duty assignments. This past term, we asked the students to choose a work of art from the Addison’s permanent collection and to reflect on its personal and academic significance to the student. Each student interpreted this assignment differently and we are excited to present the first essay in the series by Lucy Frey, Class of 2013.

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation”
– Robert Francis Kennedy

Last fall I walked through the upstairs gallery at the Addison. Photographs from Paul Fusco’s RFK Funeral Train Rediscovered lined the walls. The images pulled me in and entranced me as I dizzied myself walking around the room multiple times. The emotions that it provoked were unforgettable. In the cool, yet muggy air of the gallery I can still hear the cheering of the crowds and his voice echoing, “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.” Just a year later I am reunited with one of the pieces. It is just one photo hanging on the wall in a different gallery and a different exhibition, almost unfamiliar to me at first. As I step towards the piece, I gasp quietly, I feel my heart beat quicken in excitement, like I have found missing treasure. The single photo is one piece of the puzzle, one cart on a train passing by, and one picture from a collection, but it puts me back in the upstairs gallery, to the moment when I fell in love with the hazy images of a time decades before I was born.

Paul Fusco, Untitled from RFK Funeral Train Undiscovered

Flocks of people were drawn to Bobby, even in his death. He inspired all of America, black men and women, white men and women, soldiers, business men, Latinos, adolescents, and people of all religions. They were the people that made up this country and he believed in them as much as they believed in him. A river of working class people passed his coffin at his wake and millions lined the train tracks on June 8, 1968, the day of his casket’s ride from New York to Washington. They stood, they knelt, they saluted one of the greatest politicians of all time. They wept, they screamed out, and they sat in silence as he graced their presence for the last time. Even years after his political life and public death Robert Kennedy inspires the youth of today: reading about him in history textbooks or learning of his legacy through television programs; pictures of him, his brothers, and other family members are everywhere. The Kennedy family members are political royalty, celebrities, and role models for America. But it is what he did that affects people still. The words he spoke throughout his lifetime were strong and passionate, just as the funeral train montage. His sweet words of advice inspire me to be patient and kind, but also inspire me to think about the world in a larger scale and not just what affects me personally.

Seeing the singular photo reminds me of when I saw the exhibit for the first time. As I walked through the gallery, these photos were aligned across the walls. I walked along the perimeter and I saw a snapshot of each moment, feeling as if I was on the train myself, looking out on the millions of people who RFK supported and loved. The blur of the photograph made me feel like I was on a moving train moving through time, and at each picture I picked up one or two things, but never everything. Facial expressions, the latest fashions, and different types of people, but what was constant were the appearance of hands. Clothes may have changed, from women’s dress to a man’s. Landscapes may change from country to city. And expressions may change person to person, but the hands always seemed to tell the true story, through expression and movement.

A cartoon image from elementary school pops into my head. The image of different hands coming together, interlocking fingers with one another, lining up around the world holding hands, people of all different races, standing together, smiling, working with one another to make the world a better place. My eyes wander back to the photographs, to the people standing together, holding hands, and together honoring a fallen brother, politician, and friend. At this point I look down at my own hands, small and dainty, slightly callused, reminiscent of work over the summer, and tough from taking notes and writing in school. They are my hands and they tell my own story. Although they are personal and mine, as I look back at the photograph I see the hands of others and I wonder how my own hands could fit in with those. I begin to notice people in a new and different tone, staring intensely at the creases on the palms, the dirt under the fingernails, or the curling of the fingers. I am peering into a private moment. A nun praying, a man reaching out, a woman wiping her tears or a row of children, stick straight, hands by their sides while their father salutes to passing train. Hands hold signs, capturing the image of thoughts and prayers in the hearts of the people, “God Bless the Kennedys,” “God Bless Bobby,” “We will miss you,” “Who will be the next one,” “Pray for us Bobby,” “We have lost our last hope.”

The hands tell the story of the American people, the family that Bobby represented and fought for. The hands come together, all different colors, black, white, tan, and of all different classes smooth, rough, or soiled, and the hands speak to us through the pictures, through the glass, and into the gallery. We see a story of confidence, recognition, and devotion, a story that is unforgettable just as his life was, and a story that will never be forgotten. And from the wise words of RFK himself we learn, “Tragedy is a toll for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.”

--Lucy Frey, Phillips Academy Class of 2013