Learning Curve: Chess and success in the inner city
Robert Nott | The New Mexican
Posted: Sunday, December 09, 2012
I can’t remember the first name of my middle school math teacher. In those days, students didn’t get to know the first names of their instructors. But he was known to me as Mr. Hull, and he did two things for me: He convinced me I could grasp mathematics when I wanted to give up on the topic, and he taught me chess.
I was a competent, if sometimes clumsy, basketball player during that time period, but when it came to after-school activities, it was chess club, and not the gymnasium, that attracted me. I took part in regional tournaments and played chess during study hall, recreation hall and before class in the morning. I attended a really tough inner-city school populated by people from a lot of different backgrounds, but the chess board didn’t recognize race, creed or color. The game was a beautiful equalizer on so many levels. I think it helped me to not get beat up, in fact.
So Karen Dellamaggiore’s new documentary, Brooklyn Castle, resonated with me. The film, which opens at the Center for Contemporary Arts’ Cinematheque on Old Pecos Trail in Santa Fe this coming weekend, looks at the financial challenges facing I.S. 318, a public junior high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., and how district budget cuts threaten the school’s chess club. Although about 65 percent of the kids who go to school there are considered impoverished (under federal guidelines), the school’s student chess players have managed to win 26 national chess competitions over the last 15 to 20 years.
“In [I.S.] 318, the geeks … are the athletes,” the school’s principal, Fred Rubino, notes in the film, which focuses on five of the school’s chess-playing students and their hopes for winning the big matches at various regional and national chess competitions in 2009-10. These students are all aware that a draw can deny their team a win. (Draws are rarely considered a sign of success in a chess match, though I’ve breathed a sigh of relief when I’ve pulled off a stalemate after thinking I was going to lose a match.)
One of the kids in Brooklyn Castle, Justus Williams, is now considered a teen chess champ. Chess, for these kids, is a potential springboard for success in terms of choosing their high school and college down the line.
The movie contains a great scene in which school leaders urge parents and kids to lobby their political leaders to lessen the budget cuts and save the chess team (among other programs) — and their efforts work! Given the push from Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Joel Boyd and board member Steven Carrillo to get the community lobbying for our public schools come January (when the next, 60-day legislative session starts), I wonder if they can rally parents and students behind them the way these I.S. 318 leaders do in Brooklyn Castle.
The documentary’s website, www.brooklyncastle.com, includes an updated blog about the picture’s upcoming release and the lives of some of its subjects. Sad to say, it looks like Principal Rubino recently passed on, according to that blog.
Thinking of Mr. Hull got me to recalling the other teachers in my life who impacted me in a positive way. I don’t know their first names — we’re talking 35 to 45 years ago now. So, in no particular order, a belated thanks to Mr. Lee (sixth grade), Mrs. Bartel (fourth grade, and really tough, but she nurtured my love of reading), Mr. Scalpi (English teacher in high school), Mr. Cushman (history teacher in high school) and Mrs. Smith, another high school history teacher. And I recall Mrs. Parker (second grade) who was really playful with vocabulary, and Mr. Pritchard, who was a film and literature teacher in high school.
But the only middle school teacher I can remember is Mr. Hull. Who taught me chess. And math.
I still play chess. My checkbook is a mess.
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