Our fourth grade granddaughter, a softball player and avid Rangers fan, brought home evidence that our public schools just may be on the right track.
You will agree if you believe teaching the values of American exceptionalism and social justice through the study of baseball is a good way to learn these principles.
She and her classmates in their language arts class were assigned to read a terrific little book, In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord, first published in 1984.
Scholastic, Inc., the premier organization that has delivered reading material to classrooms for 90 years, explains that Lord, an acclaimed author, based this remarkable novel on her own experiences as a young immigrant. She unfolds a story that resonates with a special mixture of humor and seriousness that characterizes a child’s view of discovery and growing up.
The story takes place in 1947 when a Chinese child arrives in New York where she discovers baseball and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The essence of the story sets up a learning opportunity not only for the characters in the book but for all its readers – young and old, then and now. Here is how it is described on Scholastic.com:
Proud of the American name that she chose herself, Shirley Temple Wong is optimistic that her new home will be the land of many opportunities. But it's harder than she expected. Though her classmates in Brooklyn come from a variety of backgrounds, Shirley is the only one who doesn't speak English, and she worries that she will never have a friend.
Then she gets in a fight with Mabel, the tallest, scariest girl in the fifth grade. Though Shirley winds up with two black eyes, she is faithful to the code of childhood and doesn't tell anyone what happened.
Her silence gains her the respect and friendship of Mabel, who gives her the gift that truly changes her life: baseball. Soon Shirley is the biggest Brooklyn Dodgers fan of all, listening to the radio to hear the triumphs and heartbreaks of the team and her hero, Jackie Robinson.
Midway through the novel, Shirley and Mabel’s teacher leads a class discussion on the topic of baseball by asking why it is America’s favorite pastime.
After the children respond with a few answers such as because it is a great game and that everybody loves it, the teacher follows up by asking, “But what is it about baseball that is ideally suited to Americans?”
She probed further, “I mean, is there something special about baseball that fits the special kind of people we are and the special kind of country America is?”
Puzzled looks around the classroom leave the students silent. “Baseball is not just another sport. America is not just another country,” she explained, answering her own question.
“In our national pastime, each player is a member of a team, but when he comes to bat, he stands alone. One man. Many opportunities. For no matter how far behind, how late in the game, he, by himself can make a difference. He can change what has been. He can make it a new ball game.
“In the life of our nation, each man as a citizen of the United States has the right to pursue his own happiness. For no matter what his race, religion or creed, be he pauper or president, he has the right to speak his mind, to live as he wishes within the law, to elect our officials and stand for office, to excel. To make a difference. To change what has been. To make a better America.
“And so can you! And so must you!”
Then comes the social justice part as the teacher explains that Jackie Robinson, the first African American player in the major leagues, is at bat standing for himself, for Americans of every hue, for an America that honors fair play.
“Jackie Robinson is the grandson of a slave, the son of a sharecropper, raised in poverty by a lone mother who took in ironing and washing. But a woman determined to achieve a better life for her son. And she did. For despite hostility and injustice, Jackie Robinson went to college, excelled in all sports, served his country in war. And now, Jackie Robinson is at bat in the big leagues.”
She illuminated the story of an unlikely hero making a difference by changing what has been and making a better America.
Then she nailed the lesson: “And so can you. And so must you.”
Shirley Temple Wong suddenly understood why her father had brought her 10,000 miles miles to live among strangers. Here, she was somebody.
Through this wonderful novel and the powerful story that unfolds inside it, Bette Bao Lord confirms the values that parents and grandparents everywhere try to instill in their children.
Our experience with our granddaughter is that the purpose of the assignment has been achieved. She read the book out loud to her Granny and, at particular parts familiar to things she often hears around the house, she grinned and said, “Seems like I’ve heard this before.”
It actually may mean even more to her for she was born in Russia where our son and his wife adopted her when she was nine months old. We are very glad that her teacher at Mary Moore Elementary chose to make Bette Lord’s book required reading for her students.
Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor, served as an appointee of Pres. George W. Bush as Regional Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and currently is an adjunct professor in UT Arlington’s Graduate School of Urban and Public Affairs.