19 April 2007

Chess Club

In 8th grade, I was a founding member of the Chess Club, which met on Tuesdays during Activity period. I'd originally tried to join the Science Club, but found out that there were two Science Clubs: the one that looked through telescopes and studied the stars was full by the time I got there, and I had to take the other one, the one that did Nature hikes on Saturdays and studied pond scum. Didn't last long there.

The default Activity if you weren't in a Club was Study Hall, and I already had a couple of those, like the other nerdy boys who found homework pretty easy and hadn't joined (or couldn't get into) a Club. After a few weeks, to stave off boredom for the endless 53 minutes of the period, a couple of us brought in portable chess sets and started playing. And naturally the rest of us wanted to watch and kibbitz.

My playing was decidedly second-tier; the real killers were Rich Kenny, Ivan Mann, David Snyder, and Charlie Obler — all of them not coincidentally great at math. Well, Rich was more like a normal person at math (though still better than me), but his native intelligence was keen, and his spirit indomitable, which made him a dangerous opponent, unlike the others, who were usually satisfied with outsmarting each other. Rich had the killer instinct, and liked to destroy his adversary; more than once he got caught in a sneaky checkmate because he was too busy mounting Sherman's March through his opponent's backfield.

At first Mr. Nyswaner, a shy Norwegian in his first year as a teacher (which got him stuck with study hall — no club for him either), was inclined to let this go on, perhaps believing that it did no harm, and certainly out of pity for us, since the rest of our social lives were so obviously inept. But one day, after we'd already set up our chess boards and were well into Round 1 of our weekly tournament, Mr. Nyswaner suddenly materialized behind Rich, who was just bringing out his Queen for a vicious assault on Charlie's front line of pawns, and told us to put the games away. We looked at him stupidly.

(In those days, you didn't talk back to your teachers — i.e., didn't ask why when they told you to do something you didn't want to do. You looked at them stupidly, as if they'd spoken to you in a foreign language. Sometimes this would flummox the teacher in question, resulting in a cascade of explanations and justifications, and once in a while she (or more rarely he) would retire from the field in embarrassment, and you could go on doing whatever it was they didn't want you to do. The older teachers would simply repeat the command sharply, and the implied threat of physical consequences, should you fail to obey at once, was not an idle one: laws against corporal punishment in schools were years away — the chances were good that if your parents found out a teacher had slapped you in school you'd get slapped when you got home. Ah, the dear dead days.)

In this instance, the pole-axed look we gave Mr. Nyswaner was real — what was he talking about? We weren't playing games, this was *chess*. But our hesitation broke his confidence, and he started to backpedal, saying it was distracting the other students who were trying to work; besides, this was a study hall, not a game room. He went back to his desk, very red in the face, and resumed whatever it is that teachers do when they're not teaching.

This presented an awkward situation. He hadn't stayed to make sure we put our chess sets away, so maybe he wasn't really serious. On the other hand, if we went back to playing, it would constitute a direct flouting of his authority, and because he was new, we didn't know where the line was with him. Still, what was he saying? That playing chess was somehow illegal? Then why'd he let us do it for so long?

Having been a teacher myself for over three decades, I can now plausibly reconstruct what had happened. Mr. Nyswaner was a newbie, and wanted everybody to like him. In the teachers' lounge one day, during a round of Listen To What Those Idiot Kids Did Today, he'd tried to impress his elders with the funny story of the geeky boys playing chess in his Tuesday study hall. No doubt they'd looked at him stupidly, unable to comprehend how he'd permitted such a Bohemian situation to develop. He'd faltered, stammered, maybe even asked for advice, having realized his only hope of survival in this rural high school was to cringe back into his colleagues' good graces.

I'm pretty sure his mentor in this would have been Mr. Douglas, the avuncular ruddy Scot who taught math and liked to punch you jovially on the upper arm (right where it hurts the most), by way of saying, "You're not gonna act up in MY math class, now ARE you, Laddie?" Grasping Mr. Nyswaner's upper arm (right where it hurts the most), Mr. Douglas likely told him in a firm but friendly voice that if he didn't nip this little insurrection right in the bud, he'd have chaos on his hands in that study hall. Mr. Douglas knew boys like that: he'd been one of them.

Chaos in the Classroom: the worst catastrophe you can incur your first year out — you don't come back from a C in the C.

Now Mr. Nyswaner was in a bind. His fledgling reputation as a nice guy had already earned him the condescension, if not yet the scorn, of the oldest and nastiest of his colleagues, I'm pretty sure of that, but Douglas was a man whose respect he could not afford to lose; he'd have to do something about our "little insurrection," whether he wanted to or not. So he gave it his best shot.

But Rich, as I said, had the killer instinct, and he smelled irresolution in Nyswaner's order for us to stop — Nyswaner would never get physical with us, twerpy as we were: he didn't have the nerve.

I was standing behind Charlie watching the game; Rich was facing the front, where Mr. Nyswaner had just sat down and was fussing with a pile of exam books. When I turned back from looking stupidly at Nyswaner, Rich had that hard gleam in his eye I'd seen so many times before when he was about to do something crazy, just to discombobulate his opponent (worked every time with me). He picked up his Queen and plowed into Charlie's secondary, taking the pawn right in front of the King. "Check," Rich said, loudly enough to be heard out in the hall.

Now Charlie was likely the only real genius among us (the senior math teachers used to ask him for help with their equations), which also made him the weakest chess player in the top tier, because he couldn't comprehend the illogical moves the rest of us would make when we didn't know what else to do. This was about the stupidest move he'd ever seen — the Queen was completely unprotected — and he looked at Rich for a moment, utterly baffled.

But Rich wasn't looking at Charlie, and it was soon apparent why: the defiant expression on Rich's face drained away, and a shadow loomed over the board: Nyswaner had returned. He said not a word, just stood there, a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier, and stared Rich down. The rest of us silently slithered from the field.

In response to his humiliation, Rich turned activist. I'm not sure of the sequence here, but I believe it's no coincidence that about this time he launched the samizdat journal The Pickpocket's Packet (described elsewhere), in which he editorialized in favor of official recognition of the Chess Club. He circulated petitions and lobbied his classmates to sign, and even enlisted faculty support — his advocate in this crusade was, perhaps not surprisingly, Mr. Douglas, who must have admired the boy's spunk, because he had, after all, been just such a bairn himself, once upon a time.

So the Chess Club became an official Activity, with Mr. Douglas as its Advisor (he even joined in once in a while, when an odd number of players showed up); Mr. Nyswaner survived a challenge to his authority, and his rookie year as a teacher; Rich Kenny learned the limits of aggression, the effectiveness of diplomacy, and the rudiments of publishing; and I got this story to tell.

This story is one of my favorites, the kind that I tell eventually to every new friend, once we get past the acquaintance stage. It's a tale of daring, of resolution in the face of bureaucratic oppression, of perseverence and resourcefulness — and it has a happy ending. Best, it's about geeks, who've become fashionable characters in American lore ever since technology took over our lives.

But back in the day, we were ridiculed and picked on, because we were puny and talked funny and read all the time. In Science class, when Charlie and David made a computer, housed in a cigar box and wired with Xmas lights, that could add and subtract, they got no awards from their classmates, who were vying with each other for prizes we didn't have a prayer of even competing for — popularity, esteem, good looks.

It was a heady experience to actually succeed in making a place in the world, however circumscribed, for our otherwise incompetent selves. It made us feel like men, however short of stature and shrill of voice, to marshall our forces, make our case, and win official recognition of something that was important enough to fight for.

A short-lived victory, as it turned out. The following summer half of us went through puberty and moved on to more grown-up things; the rest of us, left behind by that rapture, lost heart and fell back on reading science fiction in study hall, the cheap pocket paperbacks tucked inside our math text, to be sure — no one but Douglas would check, and he was an sf fan himself. We served out our sentence of humiliation with fatalism, and consoled ourselves with the dream of someday saving our benighted planet with brilliant schemes our former colleagues were too doped up on hormones to be able to imagine.

Of course, some of us did better than others at class reunions some years later...

Geeks' Nite Out



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