WEST BLOOMFIELD, Mich. -- Mark Honeyman remembers his first year as a teacher, 35 years ago, reading an essay from a student and asking her why she believed the way she did.
“And she just kind of glared at me a couple of times and she said, 'Do you really care?'” the West Hills Middle School teacher recalled. “She was stunned that anybody over the age of 16 gave a care whether she had an opinion or a belief in a cause.”
That galvanized him to help kids find their voice through writing, a pursuit he has carried to this day. The voice he found in eighth-grader Gabrielle Porter resonated with him.
Porter’s essay about the racism that she encountered in the words of a friend in class last year, the realization that the same friend had said similarly hurtful things to others, and the courage they summoned to get together and tell their school principal, resonated with many.
“In that moment, I felt like Jackie Robinson,” she wrote in her essay for the Breaking Barriers contest, conducted by Major League Baseball and Scholastic. “I know that he had been through his own battle. I know that each time he walked onto those baseball fields, someone would shout something racist.”
Robinson’s battle breaking the MLB color barrier and going on to a 10-year Major League career was an example of determination and courage, two traits that stood out to Porter, she wrote. She didn’t think she would be challenged that way, and didn’t think she was strong enough to answer, but she found the courage.
“It gave me the perfect opportunity to show her that I will be a successful young black woman,” she wrote. “I will change the world just like Jackie did.”
Those last words were on t-shirts Porter and her classmates wore Monday as Tigers players Niko Goodrum and Josh Harrison paid a visit. Out of more than 10,000 essay submissions for the Breaking Barriers contest, hers was one of 10 national winners selected from students in grades four through nine.
“I never thought people would find my paper an inspiration to them,” she said.
She’s the third national winner selected from Mr. Honeyman’s class in the last seven years.
“The Breaking Barriers contest is a remarkable contest,” he said. “Of all the contests, it’s the one that delves the deepest into the heart and soul of each student. It asks students to write about some challenge, some difficulty, a traumatizing moment; whether it’s dyslexia, whether it’s social anxiety, whether it’s a divorce in the family, a serious illness, a whole host of different things that students have written about over the years. And it truly is a privilege and an honor to read what you write, and for all these years, to have read what students have written about these deeply personal issues that they face.”
The contest asks students to describe how Robinson’s example demonstrated the traits that they needed to summon to take on the challenges in their own life. As such, the contest helps Honeyman’s quest to help students find their own voices as writers and be willing to open up.
“I want my class to be their safe haven, their sanctuary, where they can just let it fly and be their truest selves and not worry about somebody mocking them for something,” he said. “And so, they embrace that and they just go for it. Watching her write a paper that was so raw and covered such intensely personal material, and yet she put it all out there, wrestled with it, tried to figure out not only just talking about it, but how to talk about it in a way that was eloquent and had an impact on the audience. And then to see her talk about how much she gained from having to go through that, to me that's all Jackie Robinson was about, taking those challenges and saying, ‘You know what, the world might be buffeting me right now, but I'm not going to let anything stop me.' And my young lady lived up to that legacy beautifully.”
Just as important, he wants students to believe that their voice matters.
“That's what's so electrifying,” Honeyman said. “One of the primary, maybe even the primary reason I do these things -- yeah, the awards are nice and the acclaim is beautiful -- but it's that sense of, ‘Holy cow, I'm 13 and I've got a room full of adults who are filming me, interviewing me, talking to me, giving me prizes, because I said something that mattered to them as a 13-year-old.’”
It matters to Harrison, a parent to two young daughters.
“As sad as it sounds, there’s so much negativity in the world,” Harrison said. “Jackie Robinson is a guy that dealt with it pretty much every day. Granted, it was baseball, but you can take a lot of life lessons from that. There will be people that don’t want you to do certain things or don’t agree with what you do or don’t like you, but what you believe and stand up for should be all that matters.”
Both Porter and Honeyman will be honored at Comerica Park before Tuesday’s game against the Pirates. Harrison and Goodrum presented the class with new laptops on behalf of MLB. Just as big to the kids, they’ll be guests of the Tigers for their May 16 game against the A’s.