A few weeks ago, I came across one of those aphorisms that proliferate on Facebook. Normally I ignore them without giving them any attention (except maybe a brief gagging noise. Sorry. I can’t help myself). But this one, for some reason, stuck with me, although I’m not sure I can remember now exactly how it went. Something to the effect of this: If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.
I’m not exactly sure whether it meant that you needed to visualize what you want or whether it meant that you needed to provide good models. But I keep flipping both meanings through in my mind. I’m inclined to think that both are true.
If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. If you can’t see how it might be, you might never get the idea to do it. This could actually be a good or a bad thing. We use it both ways. We get the negative side when we blame video games for school shootings. But we also use it to support social justice, for example, to explain how it’s important to break out of racial stereotypes in sitcoms so children can see people who look like them doing great things.
I’ve been thinking about this aphorism this weekend with regard to AJ. It started when I was thinking about some of the ways in which his new school seems to have benefited him. He sees kids working hard and he works hard. He sees it, and he is it. It’s something he didn’t get enough of in the school he used to go to. But it came up again last weekend. Last Friday, I met AJ and Mr. Spy at Lincoln Center after work to watch Brooklyn Castle, a documentary about a middle school about a mile from our apartment that regularly turns out exceptional chess players in a school where more than 75% of the students are below the national poverty level (and let’s not eve. We were expecting to like it, because AJ likes to watch things about kids his own age and we both like chess. But we both came away inspired. I was inspired by the educators who pushed kids to be excellent and who appeared to understand the complexity of the problems holding them back. I was inspired by the parents who kept pushing for their kids to succeed even as it appeared they may not have fully understood the world their kids were getting into. And I was especially inspired by the kids themselves, who pushed and pushed themselves, not just in chess but in their academics as well, working to get into some of the top high schools in the city.
AJ was inspired to revisit his chessboard. Apparently he had to see it to be it. We played when we got home and I beat him. That was the last time I won all weekend. He beat me three times on Saturday alone.
On Sunday, I took him into Manhattan to visit “the chess district,” a one block stretch of Thompson Street just off of Washington Square park that has a high concentration of shops devoted to chess. I’ve always loved wandering up and down the street looking in windows but had never before had an excuse to go in. But I found that two of the storefronts were now empty. One of the stores had been there since the early 70s. Rumor has it that they’re reopening as a chess bar. But for now, Chess Forum is the only shop remaining, and so we went in. The door opens into the short end of an L-shaped shop with worn wooden floors. The front part of it – the short leg — is full of old wooden cases showcasing fancy and impractical chess sets. A Civil War set. A carved set from India with elephants for rooks. There’s also a case full of chess clocks wedged in a back corner, all stacked on top of one another. Several of the reviews of Chess Forum we read describe it as being like Olivander’s wand shop, and there’s something to it. There’s something vaguely magical about the place. You feel like you might not be seeing all that is there. AJ and I stand at the counter at the L’s bend, wondering what to do next. We are looking for a tournament set, but nobody is there. We peer down the long end of the L which is full of tables of chess sets. Several are occupied. Two young men are playing one another while discussing their girlfriends. A large Russian man is playing and teaching a boy younger than AJ at another table. “Can I help you?” We look back to the counter we’re standing in front of and there is suddenly someone there. Where he came from, I’m not sure, but he found us a chess set and a roll-up board and talked us out of buying the wrong chess clock. AJ asked if we could play. We looked at the handwritten sign listing fees for playing. The man behind the counter said, “Kids always play free,” and disappeared again. So we walked into the long part of the L and sat down at one of the back tables. The room was covered in mismatched paintings of indeterminate origin, some with ornate frames. But there was not time to look around. AJ was already urging me to make the first move. As usual, he beat me soundly and reluctantly, we heading out, pausing to look in the window one more time as the bells on the door tinkled behind us.
We walked back through Washington Square Park where we found a man playing show tunes on a grand piano right in the middle by the arch. There are always surprises here.
On the way home, AJ said, “I wish we had a chess club at school. “
“Why don’t you start one? Do you have chess sets at school?”
“Talk to your teacher.” I could see the wheels turning.
On Monday evening, when I got home from work, AJ told me that he’d talked about the chess club at the class meeting and found 9 other kids who wanted to play. And apparently there’s an 8th grader who’s ranked Master and has agreed to coach them.
Meanwhile, I’m stunned and proud that he followed through with this. Last year he probably wouldn’t have. He has so much more confidence all of a sudden. Maybe he had to see it to be it.