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Bloomingdale student's essay wins grand prize in Jackie Robinson-inspired contest

Peter Hanhan walks off the field with Sharon Robinson after throwing the ceremonial first pitch at Tuesday’s Rays game.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Peter Hanhan walks off the field with Sharon Robinson after throwing the ceremonial first pitch at Tuesday’s Rays game.

VALRICO — All the 5-year-old Looney Tunes fan wanted was a peaceful night's sleep, clutching his favorite oversized plush Tweety Bird.

It was, as Peter Hanhan recalls, the end of a gorgeous school-free spring day back in 2002. His mother, Gloria, kissed him — and his older brother Imad — good night as the siblings fell asleep in the bunk beds of their third-floor apartment bedroom.

But that wasn't all, folks.

Rather than having visions of the lovable yellow canary outsmarting Sylvester the cat in his resting mind that night, Peter's dreams were smashed. Within an hour he was knocked unconscious, courtesy of an invasive Israeli soldier's blunt hit with a rectangular piece of gunmetal to his temple.

This was part of the portrait Peter, a 15-year-old freshman at Bloomingdale High School, depicted in a two-page essay that documented how his Palestinian family was forcefully uprooted from their home in the West Bank in the Middle East.

The entire Hanhan family, led by Peter's father, Amin, escaped the volatile life, landing safely in Tampa and finding refuge with Peter's uncle, Usama.

Fast forward a decade to Peter's essay about those harrowing days, which earned him the grand prize out of more than 6,000 entries from across North America in the 2012 Scholastic/Major League Baseball "Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life" essay contest.

Peter won a laptop and a trip to the 2012 World Series. He also got a school visit Tuesday from Sharon Robinson, daughter of Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson.

The award recognizes students for their efforts to overcome personal barriers using the values exemplified by Jackie Robinson, who is best known for breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball 65 years ago.

"I was so grateful and so happy," Peter said about winning. "I've never done any essay contents before. I was about to put it off to the side because I had so many things going on at that time."

Peter also was honored during a pre-game ceremony at the Rays-Angels game at Tropicana Field on Tuesday night, the first professional sporting event he has attended. He split 10 tickets with his English teacher, Katy Proly, who has been teaching him about baseball since they got the news.

"For me personally, this is the greatest experience of my career," said Proly, who has been teaching at Bloomingdale for five years and also won a laptop. "And Peter is one of the greatest students I've ever had."

Everyone in Proly's English class received a T-shirt and a signed copy of Sharon Robinson's book, Promises to Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America. One student, Nicole Pinner, 15, sits in front of Peter and has known him since he started his American schooling at Alafia Elementary. She helped Peter edit the initial 13-page essay.

"It was so hard to revise it," she said. "It was really sad. It made me want to cry. It was a really touching story."

Nicole remembers back in fifth grade, when Peter was the new kid who didn't speak any English and a self-described "terrified child sitting in the corner," frustrated that it took 30 minutes to convey to his teacher he had to use the restroom. Looking back through his essay, the language barrier appears a comparatively easy obstacle for Peter. After all, he grew up watching tanks block the roads to his grandparents' home.

It's how Peter communicated his life's journey that won him these accolades, said Robinson, 62. Eight people read the final 125 essays and all eight picked Peter's as the grand prize winner for ninth grade — a feat never before accomplished since the award's inception in 1997.

"What stood out to me was that he wrote this story as if he was still this young boy," said Robinson, who lives in Apollo Beach. "It was beautiful. The students have to use one or more of my dad's nine values. Courage certainly was a value Peter and his family used to get out of that horrible situation that was scary, frightening and life-threatening."

Peter specifically mentioned courage as the main value that got him to this point, but other values such as commitment, determination and persistence could easily be invoked as well. He said it was scary giving out that type of information, especially in a large contest because he didn't know how other people would view it.

Reflecting on his expedition from a place he equates to a ticking time bomb to a place where Rays fans and Yankees fans learn peacefully in the same high school English classroom, Peter hopes this isn't the last time people will pay attention to one of his stories. He wants to one day become a television reporter.

Eric Vician can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

. fast facts

About the contest

Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life was developed by Major League Baseball, Sharon Robinson and Scholastic. Since its inception in 1997, the program has reached more than 22 million children and 2.9 million educators in the continental United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. The essay contest asks students in grades 4-9 to submit a written piece about barriers or obstacles they have faced or are still facing, and how they overcame those obstacles using the values demonstrated by Jackie Robinson: commitment, citizenship, courage, determination, excellence, justice, persistence, teamwork and integrity.

Bloomingdale student's essay wins grand prize in Jackie Robinson-inspired contest 04/26/12 [Last modified: Thursday, April 26, 2012 4:30am]
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