FORT MILL -- It started with a social studies lesson about Jackie Robinson, how he used nonviolence to break Major League Baseball's color barrier more than 60 years ago.
Jared Allen, 11, a Gold Hill Elementary fifth-grader, thought about things he and Robinson share.
They both love baseball. Jared has trouble fitting in because he is autistic. Robinson, one of the greatest baseball players ever, was excluded from Major League play in the beginning because of his skin's color.
"He was brave because sometimes people made fun of him and didn't think he would succeed," Jared wrote of the legendary hall of famer in an award-winning essay. "Sometimes, I feel the same way. I will be determined and try to always be excellent just like Jackie Robinson to do my best with my school work."
Out of 11,640 entries by fourth- through sixth-graders across the country, Jared was one of nine to take honors in Major League Baseball's Breaking Barriers essay contest. Of those nine, he was one of four to win a first place. Jared wrote about his autism and two Robinson traits he knows well: determination and excellence.
Sharon Robinson, Jackie's daughter and an education consultant to the major leagues, brought Breaking Barriers T-shirts to Jared and his classmates Thursday. Jared and his teacher, Matt Rohring, each will receive a laptop computer. Saturday, Robinson will join Jared and his family for Jackie Robinson Day at Turner Field in Atlanta, where thousands of people will honor Jared and eight other children on the field before an Atlanta Braves game.
On Thursday, Sharon Robinson fielded questions from the children about the famous man she simply calls "my dad."
She told the children about her dad's first meeting with Branch Rickey, Brooklyn Dodgers club president and general manager. Rickey told Robinson how hard it would be.
"He not only had to be a great ball player, but have great character as well," she said. They did role-playing, and Rickey put his face in Robinson's and called him names.
"My father got anxious, and he asked, 'What do you want of me?'" she continued. "Rickey said, 'I expect you to hold back and fight back as a baseball player.'"
Robinson contained himself while enduring slurs on the field, and some players asked to be traded rather than play on the same team with a black man.
Robinson set the record for most steals of home plate -- 19 -- in his 10-year major league career. Stealing bases became a lesson in summing up the situation, making choices and taking good, rather than bad, risks.
Jared, who five years ago could not have done so, asked more questions of Robinson than any of the children Thursday. Although he is still shy, it is a vast improvement over when he was 5 or 6 and first began therapy, his father Steve said.
He had difficulty holding any kind of conversation at that time, his parents said. His senses are hypersensitive, so he has difficulty focusing. He has extraordinary memorization skills. He has difficulty with fine motor skills, such as writing with a pencil.
"For him, I think the biggest thing is interacting," said his mother, Sherry. "He doesn't pick up on social cues. A bunch of kids hanging out, having a conversation, it's hard for him to figure out how to fit in."
But he plays baseball in the Leroy Springs recreation league.
"We switch around positions," he explained.
He's made a small circle of friends whom he values.
"I think he's very loyal and supportive of his friends," his mother said. "He knows some of the way he acts does tend to put other kids off."
He doesn't really like to write. In his essay, Jared said it is hard to concentrate because "autism is a brain development disorder that means that my brain works differently than others." He uses determination in going to Homework Helpers after school, he said, and he knows "that if I keep trying to be excellent, it will make me happy to do well." He plans on college and "a good job."
For now, he loves baseball.
As he headed for his school bus Thursday, he had one last thought:
"I will never forget Jackie Robinson."