by Cindy Chiem, AmeriCorps member serving on the MFS Investment Management team with Dever-McCormack Middle School
Brilliancy: A spectacular and beautiful game of chess, generally featuring sacrificial attacks and unexpected moves.
I have to confess that I am not the best at chess. When I’m around my 7th-graders, I talk a big game, but, realistically, I’ve only won one tournament when I was in 5th-grade and competed on a team. I am average at best. So how did I end up co-running an unofficial chess club at school?
It was the beginning of the year and I was just starting to get to know my students. After walking my students down to lunch I realized that I had forgotten something in my last class. I went back for it. I opened the door to find my teachers sitting at a round table eating lunch. Next to them, two students sitting at a table playing chess, their lunches almost untouched.
“You guys play chess in here during lunch?” I asked.
“Yeah, Ms. Harper has a bunch of boards in the closet,” replied one of the students. He wasn’t even looking at me because he was concentrating so hard on the game. He moved his knight, only to have it captured by a pawn. Beginner’s mistake.
“You know, I won a chess tournament once,” I said. He looked up at me.
“So you’re really good?” he asked.
I hesitated, “Yeah.”
“Well you’re free to come any time Ms. Chiem. This isn’t anything official,” said Ms. Harper* as she emerged from the nearby supply closet with a stack of papers. “It would be great for the boys to get some practice with people who know how to play. It’s not a big crowd or anything, just a couple of boys who come and go as they please.”
I agreed to stop by and play one day. The bell rang and the students cleaned up their chessboards. I grabbed the notebook I had left in the room and make my way to my next class.
As the weeks went by, the chess group turned into something bigger than Ms. Harper and I could have imagined. Every day, there were more pairs eating lunch and playing chess. Our group then started to be referred to as the Chess Club by other adults in the building. If a student wanted to play but didn’t have a partner, Ms. Harper or I would play. Many of the students who went were students who may have struggled with focusing and concentrating in class, but seemed to take a liking to chess.
It was amazing to see how much our students could strategize and plan out future moves to beat their opponent. We even began using Chess Club as a reward for doing well in class. Chess Club turned into a way to get to know many of my students outside of our normal class setting.
Fast forward to winter of 2015. It was dismissal and I was in the hallway helping out with the transition.
“Oh there you are, I was hoping I could find you!” I turned and it was Ms. Harper coming down the hall.
“Ms. Harper! Is everything okay?”
“I was just coming down to tell you that I was concerned about a student. Something really seemed to be bothering him today at Chess. You seem to have a good relationship with him—has he talked to you about anything?”
The student she was asking about was not a student from any of my classes or my team's extended day program. He was a student who I had an opportunity to know through Chess Club. From a collaborative standpoint, I was glad, almost honored, and very humbled that she trusted me to tell me she was concerned about him. Moreover, this moment demonstrated that the club was indeed a space where, together, we could support even more students in the school.
“Let me see if I can talk to him,” I reassured her, “I’ll keep you updated if I hear anything.”
“Thanks so much, Ms. Chiem. See you tomorrow!” she said.
“Wait!” I said.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if we got tee-shirts for our little Chess Club?”
She started to laugh. “That would be awesome.”
*Name changed to protect privacy