Whenever I talk to students about writing their essays, I inevitably hear a common complaint: “I don’t know what to write about.”
When that happens, of course, I pull out all of my standard suggestions: “Well, you may want to write about an interest or a passion, something that moves you or something that’s important to you.”
“But my teacher wants me to write a narrative, and she says it must have a message or a point,” they often reply. “I don’t know where to start.”
“A narrative? Oh, that’s easy,” I say. “All you have to do is go home and look at all the stuff you’ve collected over the years. Then, pick out one special souvenir and tell the story behind it and describe why you hold on to that small part of your life. Souvenirs tell stories,” I explain, “and those stories will generally reveal who you are.”
At that point, my students are starting to get the idea, but they want an example, and so I begin.
For instance, I have a small trophy at home that I earned in 1963, when I was 12 years old. In fact, this trophy may be one of the smallest trophies ever. The plastic, circular base is about half the size of a tennis ball with a gold, metal baseball glove and ball on top. The inscription is fading, but I know what it says: “Wee Men All Stars — 1963.”
Yes, I’ve held on to this trophy for over 50 years because it’s the first trophy I ever earned, but this trophy tells an even more important story, a story of persistence and triumph.
That story begins two years earlier, in 1961, when I was only ten years old and playing organized baseball for the first time. Sure, I had played Wiffle ball previously in the back yard, and I had played pick-up games with my friends on nearby fields, but when I tried out during the spring of fourth grade, I wasn’t even sure I’d make a team. Fortunately, the coach of Slezak’s Gas Station saw something in my uncoordinated form, and he added me to his roster. He didn’t see enough to actually put me in a game, of course, but I was happy just to have a uniform and a hat.
Seriously, I rode my red Schwinn — with my Pee Wee Reese glove hooked through the handlebars — to either Isabel’s Field or Veterans’ Field every week during that entire summer and never played a solitary inning. Obviously, this was well before the youth leagues specified that every kid has to play a minimum number of innings or get at least one at bat. In other words, we generally had to earn our time on the field back then, and I clearly was not good enough.
Finally, however, in the bottom half of the last inning of the last game, our coach must have taken pity on me when he called my name: “LaBate, go play center field.”
I was stunned. I was ecstatic. And I was petrified. Center field — just like my hero, Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees. I stood out there in the green grass and the fading light, and I spoke aloud in the baseball chatter of that era: “He’s no batter. He’s no batter. He’s no batter.”
And inside, I spoke as well — to my God in the heavens above: “Please, God, don’t let them hit the ball to me.”
Fortunately, that one inning ended without a ball being hit my way, and my first season concluded without any major embarrassment.
By the following summer, at age 11, I wasn’t much better, but our former 12-year-old teammates had moved up to the Rookie League, and our coach had some spots to fill. Since I was the tallest kid on the team and since I could catch balls thrown to me, I became the starting first baseman. I still couldn’t hit, though.
In my 44 at bats that season, I had a grand total of five hits, all singles, for a batting average of .113, and I needed a hit in my final at bat to bump me up over the century mark. Some might see that as a failure of a season, but I knew I was getting better.
My friends and I played pick-up games daily — all summer — and the nerve connections between my brain and my overextended arms and legs were actually beginning to function properly. Thus, when my final season in the Wee Men’s League began, I was ready to shine both defensively and offensively. During that summer, I had 21 hits in 42 at bats for a robust .500 average. (What does it say about me that I still remember all these numbers after 50 years?) I even had three doubles and my first home run. I had definitely earned my spot on that All-Star team and my first piece of athletic hardware.
After that summer of success, I continued to play baseball in the Rookie League, in high school and college, and on a summer travel team after college. During those years, I earned a few more trophies, but they have since been discarded. After all, only that first trophy reminded me daily that if I persevered and believed in myself, I could achieve success, a lesson that I have carried with me for over half a century.