For as long as I could remember, I had felt like the biggest loser in Marble Falls, Texas. But on the hottest day of the spring of 1997, on a dusty, dead baseball field of near-by competitor Lampasas, an innocent baseball was about to pay for 18 years of my own frustration.
My dad had always told me "You can't lose if you don't quit." But quitting was all I ever felt like doing in that tiny little town. I felt like a regular Boo Radley, a specter that everyone feared.
I was homeschooled from kindergarten through the eighth grade. In the early 80s, especially in Central Texas, homeschooling was a new and strange concept to most people.
My dad was the pastor of a little church in town, Central Christian Church. After my older brother completed third grade at Marble Falls Elementary, they decided they wanted to remove us from the group-think mentality of public school. They took a leap of faith and began Central Christian School with a handful of other families. This was in 1984, and homeschooling was not legal in Texas. The school was technically a private, Christian school that was run by the church my father pastored because that was the only way to avoid prosecution. But the "school" was just a shell, to fulfill the letter of the law. All of the academic work was done one-on-one, at home, with parents teaching their children. To my knowledge, it was the only organization of its kind in Texas.
The positive results were instantaneous and amazing. Children who had made it to third grade in public school without being able to read were becoming literate under our chosen curriculum. Student's standardized test scores were improving. Kids who had been paralyzed by the herd mentality of public school were coming out of their shells. Prominent members of the local community were soon impressed with the school, and dozens of families quickly enrolled.
Despite the constant activities planned within CCS for the parents and students, it was important to my parents that I have a healthy amount of interaction with a variety of kids my own age. Year-round I was enrolled in Cub Scouts, youth league soccer, basketball, but baseball... nothing was going to keep me from playing baseball.
I loved baseball so much that I didn't even know that I stunk. I could tell that I had no athletic gifts in basketball and soccer due to my utter lack of success in those sports. After you've scored a few goals for the wrong team, you realize it's just not the game for you. But no matter what was happening around me, baseball felt as exhilarating to me as the most spiritual moments in our tiny church. I felt excited and alive on that diamond. If I could smell that green grass and feel that cool leather on my palm, if I could run my fingernails through the seams of that horsehide, then nothing else mattered to me.
Whether you're homeschooled or public-schooled, kids will be kids. The fact that my mom educated me and my two siblings in our house was a constant source of ridicule from my Little League teammates, who wondered out loud what I had done wrong that forced me to be homeschooled. It intimidated me to no end.
My parents always encouraged me to be myself, but that was exactly who I was afraid to be! It was "myself" that the kids targeted.
By the time I was 10, I was set on giving up baseball for good. I didn't think I'd ever feel "normal."
But my preacher-dad wouldn't let me give up. "You can't lose if you don't quit!" he would say again and again. He promised me that my love for the game and my dedication would be rewarded in some kind of meaningful way, even if it was subtle. Most of all, he promised me that if I didn't give up on the other kids, and if I just stayed true to myself, most of them would come around eventually.
In the ninth grade, my parents decided that I should enroll in the public high school. They worried about their expertise in instructing me in advanced courses like chemistry and biology, and I worried about the fact that there was no way for me to keep playing ball if I wasn't in public school.
I still remember my dad driving me to school my first day in that huge building. "You're a leader, Jonathan," he told me. "You've got four years in this building, and by the time you're through, other people are going to know how special you are. Just be yourself. They'll like you better than you might think." And as always "You can't lose if you don't quit."
The academics were easy. Eight years of private, one-on-one attention made the impersonal public school workload seem like nothing for me. But I still couldn't seem to be myself around the other kids. I just tried too hard to be someone else, thinking they would like me better like that. Year round, my only relief from the pressure was on the baseball field. Even with no real athletic ability, it was easy to just be me out there. Something about that chilly spring air mixed with that warm Texas sun energized me. I couldn't stop smiling, even with ball after ball skipping straight under my awkwardly piloted first-baseman's mitt.
I don't know when it was that I noticed the fact that even though I was a sub-par player, some of the best friends I had made were on the baseball team with me. I never quite made the connection that when I was myself, when I wasn't worried about how others perceived me, everyone got along with me.
My senior year school policy dictated that all seniors be allowed to dress for the varsity squad. Despite the fact that I still possessed no real skills, my soft-hearted coach decided to give me a few at-bats during the early season.
With only three months left before I graduated and headed to college, I made a decision to just relax and enjoy my time on the baseball field. I decided not to worry about fitting in, not to worry about how people looked at me, not to fret about whether or not I was "different" because I had gone to school someplace else for eight years. I decided to just be myself and relax. I stepped up to the plate for my first official at-bat of the season, and I swung the bat at the first pitch I saw without any fear of what anyone would think of me if I struck out.
I almost forgot to run to first base when I saw the ball carrying into deep right field, caroming off the wall on one hop.
For that entire season, when I stepped up to the plate, good things happened. Part of it was the hours and hours of practice I had put in over the years. But perhaps even more than that, the change in my game was the result of a change in how I saw myself.
I began to realize that all this time, I had treated myself worse than anyone. When one or two kids would make fun of me, I let myself think that I must be different, that there must be something wrong with me. I had always told myself "If you weren't homeschooled, they might like you better." But it had nothing to do with being homeschooled. It had to do with how I saw myself. Through our common love of baseball, I had found a way to realize that I was just the same as everyone else, and they realized it as well. It was a lesson better learned later than never.
And then, before I knew it, our season was almost over. The team had traveled to Lampasas for our final game of the regular season. As I walked to the plate for my third at-bat, I suddenly realized that this could be my very last time to play this game that I loved so much. Baseball had been the common thread between myself and the other kids in town from the time I was seven. I stared the pitcher down and dared him to give me a pitch I could hit. I wanted to cap off my personal journey from self-convicted misfit to recognized team leader with a bang.
The pitcher threw me a hanging curveball on a 2-1 pitch. The entire moment is in slow motion in my memory, from the second he let go of the ball. It looked so big, it was like a basketball. I knew I was going to hit it and hit it hard. But when I swung the bat, it felt completely effortless, like I was swinging a plastic bat. There was no sting in my hands as the ball hit the aluminum, just an unusually warm and sweet "thunk." The ball sailed high and deep into left field, and everyone in the stadium fell unusually silent as the left-fielder sprinted straight to the fence, then turned his back and stared through the chain links as he realized he had run out of room. It was a full two seconds before the ball landed. My only home-run in 12 years of baseball.
I felt like a rock star circling those bases. Everyone was cheering. My entire team was waiting at home plate. I never wanted that moment to end. It was just like I had imagined it. It would be my last official at-bat of the season. After going three-for-three with four RBI, they promptly beaned me in the back on the first pitch the next time I came to bat. This time, I didn't mind that some public school kid was being mean to me. I had a whole slew of friends cheering for me in the dugout. Two weeks later at our spring sports banquet, the whole audience stood and cheered for me when I was named All-District, First Team.
Even today, plenty of homeschool kids might let themselves start to think they're different from the other kids on their block. The world certainly does not reflect the principles held dear by most homeschooling families, and it would be easy to believe that you just don't fit in sometimes.
But the world will see you as you see yourself. There's always something in you with which someone else can identify. You never know when that home-run pitch you've been waiting your whole life for will come your way. So don't hang your head and worry about whether or not you're different. Show the world what it is they should respect about you.
And never forget: You can't lose if you don't quit.