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Students learn values to conquer obstacles


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001

ST. PETERSBURG -- The daughter of Jackie Robinson, one of sport's most enduring legends, spoke Wednesday with fourth-graders at Perkins Elementary School about the courage to overcome obstacles.

Sharon Robinson, who directs a recently created educational programing department for Major League Baseball, expects to travel to 21 major league cities by June. In each, she talks to schoolchildren about nine key values that guided her father, who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947.

"Who wants to talk about integrity?" the former nurse-midwife asked the students.

"Someone told me to smoke a cigarette once and I said no," one girl offered.

"Very good," said Robinson, 51, with the practiced ease of a career teacher. She interspersed each lesson with stories from her own life, or that of her famous father.

For integrity, Robinson recalled a stand she took at 16, in refusing to attend a cotillion she saw as exclusionary.

"My grandmother tried to entice me and said, "Oh, you're going to wear a pretty dress. You'll have an escort. It will be a big day for you.' And I said no, because I didn't believe in the concept of a cotillion."

The audience was primed, thanks in part to months of preparation through a program called "Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life." During a delay -- Robinson had trouble finding the school from Tropicana Field, where she had met with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays organization -- the children were asked if they could identify Jackie Robinson.

Virtually every hand went up.

"The first African-American to play major league baseball," said Gabriel Moton, 9. Like about a third of this classmates, he had not heard of Ronald Reagan.

Teachers had little trouble filling time with students' anecdotes about how they had needed or used one of the nine values: courage, persistence, integrity, justice, teamwork, citizenship, determination, commitment and excellence.

Billed as a "character education program," Breaking Barriers was developed by Major League Baseball and others, including Scholastic Inc. Scholastic also published Sharon Robinson's latest book, Jackie's Nine -- Jackie Robinson's Values to Live By, and teaching materials interweaving baseball themes with math, language arts, history and science. The program also offers a crown jewel for the student who writes the winning essay about using the values to overcome an obstacle: That student's whole class wins free seats at a major league baseball game and pregame recognition on the field. Perkins did not enter the contest this year.

On the subject of justice, Robinson remembered watching Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. Her father, who had retired from baseball, was so inspired he organized a jazz concert in his back yard to raise money for jailed civil rights workers. King attended. "I didn't even know these people," Robinson said. "But I knew that we were helping to raise money for them, and that in a way we were helping the civil rights movement as well."

She closed by reading from her book, a passage about skating on a lake in her girlhood home of Stamford, Conn. Jackie Robinson, who could not swim, always insisted on testing the ice himself, tapping with a stick and listening intently.

In much the same way, she said, a proud man endured taunts and slurs while testing the waters of integration. "He had to feel his way along a blind path, tapping for clues," she read.

Robinson stayed behind to sign every slip of paper handed to her. The work agrees with her, she said, in more ways than just staying connected with baseball.

"It gives me a chance to talk about a period of history these kids don't know about," she said. "And then I get to bring today's baseball stars in and hear them be really vulnerable in front of the kids, talking about obstacles they had to overcome."

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