Here’s a little documentary that will probably make you as furious as it makes me … and maybe at the same time give you some hope for the Facebook, smart phone, short-attention-span generation. I.S. 318 (and I’ve never understood why New York City schools can’t be named after people or neighborhoods like they do everywhere else) is a good intermediate school (what we would have called a junior high) whose students have won just about every prize in the children’s chess world.
No one knows why they were so good right from the inception of the program, when they won prizes the very first time they competed. Why the program continues to produce chess prodigies is no mystery at all: The teaching staff, and in particular two unsung heroes, Assistant Principal John Galvin and chess coach Elizabeth Vicary, have kept it going through dedication and sheer force of will in the face of every parsimonious bottom-line asshole in the city who keep ruthlessly cutting education budgets for “unnecessary” programs like music, the arts, and extracurricular activities like chess. I swear, it’s as if the administrators, those people who never leave their offices to see something as raw and distasteful as a student, are actively engaged in finding stuff that works, or anything that is excellent, and stamping it out.
The movie follows five kids who give one hope for the future. They have phones like everyone else, but they don’t spend all their time with their noses buried in them. Instead, you’re more likely to find them hunched over a chess board, and they are damn serious about it. They travel to Dallas and Minnesota and Saratoga for tournaments (and have to raise most of their travel expenses themselves), and usually beat everyone in sight. Not always; learning how to lose and get over it is part of what they learn from these matches. Rochelle wants to become the first female African-American chess master, for which she needs to achieve a rating of 2000 on an arcane system I didn’t understand. In the end, she is very close, and has won a full-ride scholarship to the University of Texas at Dallas, worth about $65,000! Who said chess didn’t pay? Pobo (his parents are from Nigeria but he is American-born; his full first name has about five more syllables) is elected class president, and mentors the younger kids. Justus is so good at the age of twelve that everyone agrees he might become a grand master.
So, aside from the scholarship, mastery of chess and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee, right? I mean, what good it is? Will it help you in later life? Well, who the fuck knows? I never did anything directly with the time I spent in the Nederland High School Band, I never earned a nickel from my (very minor) skills as a French horn player. But it was one of the most valuable things I ever did in high school. It taught me so much more than just music. Myself, I am totally rotten as a chess player, I just don’t understand it, but I am in favor of anything that a child can be passionate about. And still they cut the budgets. Yeah, I know it’s hard economic times, but I believe that education is the absolute last thing a city or state should cut in bad times. Why is it that it’s always the first thing? Well, kids can’t vote, can they? But believe me, if we don’t give our kids a good, enriching education, they will repay us tenfold in misery when they get to be adults.