In Norfolk, Va., Wednesdays are Chess Day and kids come to play in a room where the blinds are closed, not to keep the glare of the Spring sunshine off the chessboards, but to help kids concentrate on the carnage taking place on the 64-squares of the board rather than in their lives. There are kids growing up afraid to sit by an uncovered window because they fear a bullet or a person could come through it to hurt them. That’s the life strategy session we need to have as the definition of “at-risk child” narrows to the most literal terms in modern society today.
“Why are the blinds closed?” I wondered aloud three years ago, the first time I walked into the big art room where we run free learn-and-play chess sessions open to all as part of the Norfolk Initiative for Chess Excellence (NICE) in the new Lamberts Point Community Center. This is a gorgeous center right next to a major state university and planted between city’s “old neighborhood” and university area community. Kids who come to the center are mainly from the “old neighborhood” which has many single-parent homes subsisting below the poverty line.
These kids kept closing the blinds no matter how many times the staff opened them. We all figured it was because the sun was strong and the room got hot.
However, one cloudy day I walked over to open the blinds and a boy, age 6, threw a chess piece at me yelling, “Don’t! Somebody could shoot you!”
There are days and even moments that can completely change the way you see the world forever after. When that chess piece (a rook) missed me and hit the thick glass window with a loud “thwack” kids either scattered or crouched under the chess tables because they believed that the loud, unexpected sound and the open blinds meant an attack.
Today, three years later, the chess room is packed and ever since the Norfolk Sheriff’s Department agreed to have its officers come and learn chess from grade-schoolers and be mentors, nobody’s afraid anymore. We are the neighborhood safe harbor for people ages 4 to senior citizen.
In the wake of the Boston bombings and multiple shoot-outs with suspects in normally quiet suburban communities, I can’t help but think about kids in cities nationwide coping with ongoing violence-related risk daily.
Kids have plenty of challenges just growing up in the modern world, but one age-old issue we see regularly in our chess program is kids coping daily with the fallout from a close relative involved in criminal activity.
The glue that I use to hold these kids together and stick them back into society is mentoring and a board game. Our mentors are an eclectic group because I tend to seek out mentors to fit the special needs of each child with whom we work. We recruit police to play chess with little girls who are afraid and think nobody can protect them. College students pair with kids who think going to college is impossible.
The inspiration to do that kind of pairing came four years ago when the former superintendant of schools in Norfolk asked if we would try using chess to help some “at-risk” kids at an elementary school. These kids were all failing in school and not doing much better in life.
One boy still stands out in my mind because he was bent on following in his older brother’s footsteps all the way into a gang, wreaking havoc in the community via violent acts, and onward to prison.
His older brother, who was actually in jail at that time, was the sun and stars to the younger brother. In the younger brother’s eyes, his incarcerated sibling could do no wrong, even though he never did what we would consider the right things in life.
Socially the younger boy was a train wreck. Among his friends he was the big man on the elementary school campus, bullying and causing upset. To teachers he was a chubby, sullen mute. He never spoke in class, or to any teacher.
I noticed this boy always wore a Giants jersey or cap. One day I was fortunate enough to run into former New York Giant Derek Allen who had just moved to town. A friend introduced us, and I told him about the boy and chess. Turns out Derek loves chess and he came to a session with a player card of himself that showed him in full Giants uniform with the team.
At the end of the session the boy Giant was smiling, laughing and talking a blue streak as the principal walked in and stopped in her tracks in utter shock.
“That’s not the same boy,” she said. “He’s talking. Honestly, we wondered if he could speak.”
I check in on that boy occasionally, and he’s doing well now, in and out of school. He’s not playing chess anymore. It served its purpose for him. He’s also not bullying or talking about guns or how awesome it would be to go to jail, according to classmates who are still among our chess players.