Jennifer Widemire Smith
Baseball, Pink, & The Midline
During the baseball fall season we enrolled Lyla to play. Fall ball typically has a different set of kids, the season is shorter, more relaxed, wayyy less intense. My husband, Josh, and I were the coaches. When the season started I was in the hospital fighting for my life (from a freakish infection) and unable to assist in coaching. Josh was more than a little distracted but managed to take care of me and honor our commitment to coach the fall ball team. We weren’t able to work as hard on the kids swings and fielding skills as we would have liked. Recovery from an experience like that took longer than a baseball season and Lyla, our six year old daughter, went the whole season long without a single hit. She also didn’t love the fact that she had been the only girl on the team.
This spring we weren’t sure she was going to want to play, but she surprised us when she adamantly asked to join her older brother's team again. Spring ball is a longer season and infinitely more intense. Higher expectations are placed on seven and eight year olds to perform for parents and grandparents. Many of whom think they know how to coach from the sidelines by way of screaming at deafening decibels. It’s a lot of pressure, especially when you’re only six and half and the only girl who likes her baseball gear to be pink. However, she insisted.
Her first hurdle was overcoming the whole girl thing.
During our two weeks of preseason practices I would catch glimpses of the boys on the team wondering why they had to play with a girl.
One little boy asked his mom, “Is Lyla like on our team for real real?”
“But she’s a girl.”
“And she’s on our team?”
“Yes” His mother had a look that read, I dare you to say something kid.
“And she’s going to actually play with us?”
“Ok.” He shrugged. His Mom and I giggled together as we all expertly navigated the waters of parenting boys who have to learn to play ball with a girl decked out in pink sophies and a tee that read Girl’s Rule with glittery supergirl and batgirl symbols.
Still other boys were caught saying things like, “Only boys can play baseball.”
With another responding, “Well if that were true she wouldn’t be here.” Both boys shrugged and threw the ball to the little girl in a pink hat and baseball ribboned hair bows. As coaches, we didn't intercede, not one child was ugly about it. So we gave the boys space to accept her and gave her time to prove to them she could be one of them---only you know, in pink...
She typically sat on the bench perfectly content to let the boys play off each other’s energy on the other end of the dug out. Her natural ability to ignore their antics acted like a magnet with each boy deciding they kind of liked her, especially when she reminded them to cheer simply by starting off the chant to herself.
On opening day I drove the kids from school to ballet to home to get ready I asked Lyla while she was still in her leotard and tutu, “Are you excited about the first game of the season tonight?”
“No? Why not?”
“Because I can’t hit very well yet. And I can’t throw very far. And I can only catch the ball some of the time. I really want to be able to hit the ball.”
“You hit the ball at practice last time.”
“Yeah I know but that’s practice. I don’t know if I can hit it during the game.” She bowed her head and mumbled, “With everyone watching.”
A single word popped into my head. “Do you know what confidence means Little One?”
“Confidence is believing in yourself. Believing that you can do something, anything you put your mind to.”
“Yeah but my mind doesn’t have to hit the ball, Mom—my bat does.” Oooh you sassy cheeky smart aleck. I pulled into our driveway and had Lyla unbuckle and sit in my lap.
“Believing in yourself is a choice Lyla. You don’t have to feel brave in order to chose to act brave.”
“I know, but I just…don’t know.”
“Repeat after me, I believe I can, so I will.”
She buried her face in my shoulder. It took a few moments of exaggerated breathing before a muffled, “I believe I can, so I will.” Came out all garbled.
I pulled her head back to look her in the eye, “I believe I can, so I will.”
She whispered it back.
I rolled the sunroof back and said, “Stand up and scream it to the neighbors.” She nervously laughed at me, but I wasn’t playing, “Stand up Little One. Say it like you mean it.”
It took a few more moments of coaxing before she finally said, “I believe I can so I will!” She giggled.
“What does Mrs W tell you when you’re not sure you can read something at school?”
“Keep on trying.”
“That’s right. Keep on trying. There isn’t a baseball player alive or dead who ever got it right every time. The only way to be a truly great ball player is to choose to never give up. No matter how many times you strike out. No matter how many times you miss. You try again. And again. And again. Then one day. One awesome and fantastic day. A moment comes along when you hit the ball. That moment is coming kiddo. That moment will be your’s. You need to believe in yourself.”
“I’m not sure how.”
“Well until you do, your Dad and I will believe for you.” She smiled at me, but said nothing.
Landon, her older brother by just eighteen months, pipped up, “Don’t worry Lyla. It took me nine games to figure it out too. You’re doing great. You’ll get there.” I smiled as I reveled in the sibling love going on.
Then my son shocked me. “Mom? Does Lyla have dyslexia too? Is that why we have such a hard time hitting the ball?” It was the first time he’d owned the word dyslexia.
Some people want to hide the word dyslexia as if the label will make a kid feel inferior. Sure it has it's extreme challenges but when channeled well it is a strength that outshines every hardship it presents. It is not a disability. The hardship doesn't change with the knowledge that one is dyslexic. The knowledge just explains the why and gives hope because it comes with a slue of information on how to work around, work with, or blow up the status quo.
Josh and I decided sometime last year that we would teach our children to be proud to be dyslexic. After all, dyslexics created the American way of life, the automobile industry, the electrical industry, the telephone and iPhone, the age of computers and technology, and gave us the greatest movies of all time, "ET phone home!" We decided we would teach them to never be ashamed of it. To never cower in the fear of it. To never give up on reaching a goal no matter how daunting. However, we also recognized that our children would need to be carefully coaxed into believing in themselves with gentle encouragements here and there as they processed slowly what it means to be dyslexic. And for the first time ever, Landon was now owning it.
Lyla was next. “Are you or daddy dyslexia?”
“Dyslexic and yes I am.”
“You are? Did you have a hard time learning to hit the ball too?”
“But you hit really good now?” Landon observed.
“I do.” Better than 90% of your team’s dads. I thought proudly to myself. I grew up playing sandlot ball with boys too.
“So dyslexic doesn’t stop us from learning? Just makes it really hard sometimes?” Landon asked.
“Yes! That is exactly what dyslexia does.” He said it again! In my head I was happy dancing!
“What is the hardest thing you both have to do at school?”
Without hesitation and in unison they said, “Writing!”
A dyslexic’s most difficult learning task isn’t to learn to read. It’s to learn to write!
“And what do I do everyday on my computer?”
“Write stories for books and facebook.” Ok so they don’t know the difference between Facebook and a blog…details…semantics…whatever…
“And what is your mommy?”
“Dyslexia!” They shouted making the connection.
“Everything gets easier after you learn how to do it. It’s learning how that’s hard. You will learn to hit the ball Lyla. Each time you try your brain will learn just a little bit more, until one day you swing and CRACK! The ball will go soaring through the air!”
“I’m still not so sure I can mommy.”
“You’re my daughter so I know you can.”
Lyla has a way of staring at you while she decides if she believes you or not. She’s so highly intelligent and keenly aware of body language that sometimes I have to take extra care to make sure I hold her gaze or I’ll loose the high ground. So I smiled, letting her search my face, and was rewarded when I saw the moment she believed me.
“Ok Mom let’s get ready for the game.”
Later that night after she struck out I came up to the dugout. “Proud of you kiddo.”
“But I didn’t hit it?”
“Yet. You didn’t hit it yet.” I corrected.
She gave me a thumbs up and I let her be.
Her third game I walked the fence line with her as she strode out in her pink helmet, her pink gloves, her pink and purple bat, her pink and black cleats. I smiled. She smiled back. We winked at each other. Her first swing was a miss. Her second swing fouled the ball off so fast it hit the umpire in the face. He wasn’t expecting that.
“Oops!” She said frowning as the ump readjusted his hat and shook it off. "Are you alright?" she asked.
"I'm alright little lady. Good try--strike."
Ultimately she struck out. But she held her head high and all her teammates began responding, “Nice try Lyla. You got a piece of it! You’ll get it next time!”
At school that week I noticed she started reading her books to herself and was actually reading them. Her brain was learning. Forming connections. Getting closer to its goal.
On the fourth game of the season, Lyla walked up to the batter’s box chewing her bubble gum. Something she’d proudly learned to blow bubbles with right before the game. The ball was launched, the crowd held their breath, she swung, missed, and the crowd groaned. Everyone wanted to see her get a hit. Lyla stayed unfazed, she set herself down into her stance once again. This time when she swung the bat went crack! Sending the ball straight up the middle. The bleachers went wild.
Our sassy cheeky little girl, decked out in pink baseball everything, ran her heart out to first base and brought our runner, on third, home. Her first hit coupled with her first RBI. She grinned and giggled on first base as she took one step off and got ready to run. The ump yelled time and her daddy ran over to give double high fives. The moms on the bleachers rushed me in solidarity. Everyone was screaming, cheering, and clapping. “ATTA GIRL LYLA.”
The inning changed over so she ran to the dugout where she got high fives from all her teammates than took the field with pride. She played right field and got down and ready as she continued to blow bubbles in her gum.
Her second time to bat she did the same thing. The next batter to hit, progressed her to second. The peanut gallery spoke up, “Oh my gosh my kids up to bat and all I want is for him to bring Lyla home!”
“She’s just so cute out there I just can’t stand it!” The batter struck out which is the nature of baseball, no matter how good you are. The game was called by jury of the 10 run rule. The last run being hit in by a little girl in a pink helmet who wasn’t so sure she’d ever be able to do this let alone do it twice in one game.
The team of 11 kids, 10 boys and 1 fabulous girl packed their gear up then gathered on the field for a team meeting. The boys began to chant, “Lyla, Lyla, Lyla....” she gave them a goofy grin then told them "Cut it out." This momma fought back tears. Lyla was now a full member of the team in the eyes of each of those little boys. Not an easy feat at this age.
Her coach walked over and gave the game ball to the child who’d made an amazing catch, getting a batter out. Something he’d been working very hard to do this season who needed acknowledgement too. Then Coach Dad pulled the same move he’d done the year before, “For making her very first hit of her baseball career, Lyla, you get one of my old game balls from when I was a kid, just like I gave your brother the day he made his first hit!” She grinned and her teammates cheered and hollered.
Now, you might be wondering. What does baseball have to do with dyslexia? After all this is a blog about dyslexia right?
Baseball is a game that is almost exclusively played at the midline. The midline is the space between the left and right sides of the brain. Everyone has a midline. If you’re dyslexic that midline is a little deeper and wider which causes the left and right sides of the brain to struggle with communication. Activities that force the brain to make pathways across the midline are highly recommended for children (and adults) who have dyslexia. Actually they’re really great for all kids but this is a blog about...
When a child sets herself up in the batters box, one arm must cross the midline. When the ball is thrown it crosses the midline again at the point when the brain must decide to swing or not swing. Usually a child will go for it because they’re naturally fearless. She swings but the ball stays in the midline for a fraction of a second and gets lost. The brain is rapidly firing off neurons trying to make sense of what just happened. The brain hates disorder. The ball just disappeared. Where did it go????
The next time up to bat the brain is paying more attention. Trying to not let it happen again. Damn it. It happened again. More neurons fire off. Mapping where the ball disappeared from the left side of the brain to where it reappeared at the right side. It keeps doing this until one day those little mapping neurons build a bridge. The neurons fire off. “We're ready.”
The arm crosses the midline and the bat goes up. The ball is launched. The eyes track it and the bridge holds. The ball is not lost this time. The bat comes down. The bridge holds again as contact is made. “We did it! We did it! We did it!”
If you are dyslexic this sport is more than difficult and requires a committed heart, dedication to trying again, patience in the face of failure, and belief in oneself that eventually I will get this. I will hit the ball. I will catch the ball.
At school the next day this same little girl is sitting at her desk. She looks at her book she’s been trying to read for the past week. The neurons whisper. “We can use the bridge!”
“The cat jumped over the moon.” She reads. Wait that was kind of easy. Did I do that right?
“The cat jumped over the moon.” She giggles to herself. “I did it right!” She reads the next page and the next.
Later at baseball practice the little girl’s coach says, “Lets work on your fielding skills. You can’t catch the ball out here to the side. You have to learn to catch the ball here. In the middle of your body. And you should have both hands in the middle one ready to catch the other ready to cover. Than you have to bring the ball up and throw. But you don’t release the ball back here. Release the ball here in the middle of your body, right here”—the midline.
The neurons fire off, “We need another bridge folks!”