VALRICO, Fla. -- Sharon Robinson has heard and read more than her fair share of inspirational stories, but the one about Peter Hanhan stood out.
Hanhan, a 15-year-old freshman at Bloomingdale High School, was recognized during his second-period English class on Tuesday morning by Robinson, the daughter of Jackie Robinson, as the Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life Essay Contest Grand Prize winner -- for his powerfully written essay on the courage it took to deal with being forcibly removed from his West Bank home and held hostage with his family in 2002.
Hanhan will attend a game at this year's World Series in addition to the visit from Robinson, a laptop computer and a class-wide gift of Breaking Barriers T-shirts and copies of Robinson's book "Promises to Keep." He will also be recognized on Tuesday night at Tropicana Field before the Rays' game against the Angels. Though he is a Rays fan and wore a Tampa Bay shirt and jersey to school, this will be the first professional sporting event he has ever attended.
Of the 6,000 essays submitted, a committee narrowed the potential winners down to about 125. All eight voters picked Hanhan's as one of the top five and a grand prize winner -- the first time that's happened since the Breaking Barriers Essay Contest began in 1997.
"I sometimes wish I could introduce the incredible young people I meet to [Jackie]," Robinson said of Hanhan.
Hanhan read his two-page essay in front of his classmates, teacher Katherine Proly and Robinson, recounting how as a 6-year-old he screamed at the soldiers -- "the evil men" -- to leave his family alone. A soldier hit Hanhan in the right temple with the butt of his gun, and he woke up in the basement garage of his family's 13-story apartment complex.
Three weeks later, Hanhan's family -- father Amin, mother Glorida and older brother Imad -- secretly called a taxi and fled. They took dirt roads and drove over the grass -- "we obviously couldn't use the roads without dying," he wrote -- and reached the airport. They bought their tickets and left the country to stay with Hanhan's uncle Usama in Tampa, Fla.
"I thought it was unbelievable," Robinson said. "What stands out about Peter's [essay] is the fact that he's such a storyteller. You're just drawn into it. You're there and imagining this boy standing up to the soldiers on behalf of his father and losing consciousness, and not even knowing how they got down in the garage."
Hanhan spoke no English when he first came to America, and school started only two weeks after he arrived. At first, it would take him about half an hour just to explain to his teachers that he had to use the restroom, and he would often call his father to translate for him. He was extremely shy for years, but eventually overcame that obstacle as well.
Hanhan had previously decided against putting his story down on paper, worried about the kind of prejudice that might awake and scared of putting too much personal information out there for the world to see. But he was encouraged by his friends and classmates, allowing them to read his essay as he worked on it.
The original draft was 13 pages, but Hanhan cut the final copy down to just three words shy of the maximum limit. Proly received a letter saying Hanhan had won and left a note on the class whiteboard saying there was a surprise for her second-period class.
"She told us, and me and her were screaming in this hallway and going crazy," said Hanhan, who hopes to study linguistics in college and eventually become a reporter. "I was actually about to put it off to the side because I had a lot of other things going on at that time, but I decided, 'Let's just go ahead and do it.' So, I did it and I won, and I'm so grateful."
One of the requirements of writing this essay was showing how Hanhan used Jackie Robinson's values to overcome his own challenges. Sharon Robinson was impressed with the way Hanhan told his story without being too heavy-handed about weaving in her father's values, how he let his own character shine through his words.
But there is no doubt Hanhan possesses the same kind of courage that drove the man who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier more than 65 years ago.
"It is courage that allowed my family and me to escape death, it is courage that gave me my life today, and it is courage that encouraged Jackie Robinson to achieve his baseball dream," Hanhan wrote. "Both Jackie and I realized that life, no matter the challenges, requires strength, determination, and courage to be lived.
"Life really is a gift. Every experience is a lesson, and every day, every smile and hug, every laugh, every tear, every morning sun, every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every life needs to be faced with courage and cherished with a smile."