Thursday, May 26, 2011

Meet My Students Part 2: The Grandmaster

I am no Fischer, Capablanca, nor Kasparov, but I consider myself a decent chess player.  I've read a book or two on tactics and endgames.  I know how the horsey and the pointy-headed guy move.

It's humbling to lose in chess to a student.  It's far more humbling, though, to lose consistently to your worst behavior problem.

Meet S -- real initial, if not real name (obviously).  One way to describe S is as a very spirited, outspoken young man.  Another way is that he can't keep his damn mouth shut.

S is a special education student even though he is undeniably brilliant because he has trouble regulating his behavior.  He can't stay in his seat half the time, and the other half he spends with his face on his desk in a sort of catatonic funk.  In his more lively moments, he is known for hurling aggressive comments at other students ("Come at me, fool!  Come at me right now!") that he considers to be gentle teasing, and other people consider to be mildly to severely annoying.  Personal space is alien to him -- he enjoys running up behind other male students and lifting them off their feet -- as is the concept that other people don't enjoy being called the n-word, even when it is ethnically inaccurate.  He was actually offended when I explained to him that he couldn't conduct a science project for my class on how "hardcore drinking" would affect his mood.

S is a tall, jovial 15-year-old.  He is an inexhaustible fount of smiles, jokes, and barbs; despite his off-color humor, he considers nearly everyone to be his friend, and will gladly hang out with nerds and jocks alike.  After school, he expends his pent-up kinesis in competitive soccer or online video games; while I haven't seen him play either, he is, apparently, a force to be reckoned with.  His life aspiration is to play professional soccer, then father enough sons with different women to create his own soccer team (and it's hard not to notice that -- with his towering height, slim build, and formerly shoulder-length hair [now a perfectly placed fauxhawk] -- he is the spitting image of a European soccer star).

Yet there are moments of insight, and even pathos, within S as well.  "Teachers don't like me," he proclaimed, somewhat unprovoked, one time.  Another, when I asked him why his test scores were so low despite the fact that he knows all the material, he responded that "with written answers, I just don't care.  Sometimes I write something, and I know it's wrong, but I already wrote it, and if it's right to me then, why change it?"

I initially wasn't sold on S -- in class, he can be a nightmare to try to manage (at least, he could at the beginning of the year), and while he considered himself to be a charming class clown, his unprovoked racial slurs often earned him a chorus of "Shut UP!"s from his classmates.  But then, I played him in chess.

Early this year, I had a chess club.  It went the way of the Dodo for scheduling reasons, but I'll never forget the first time I played against S.  He carefully removed a glass chessboard from his backpack and proceeded to demolish me.  Worst was that he actually explained to me, in advance, what he was going to do; I still couldn't stop him from doing it.  And rather than thinking in terms of single pieces, or tactical elements, like I did (and do), he saw the movement of the whole board.  "I'm going to have to strengthen my queenside," he would say nonchalantly, seeing my plan of attack five moves in advance.

Our record currently stands at 3-1-1 (advantage his, of course), and through these matches (and others left unfinished) I have gained a tremendous amount of respect for S.  He has become one of my favorite students, and, in his own baffling way, he has become quite friendly toward me.  He often drops in during my other classes to yell threatening comments at my students, and, as I practically chase him out the door, he'll look over his shoulder and cheerily belt out "Oh, Hi Mr. N!"  His performance in class has improved as well, and he rarely speaks out-of-turn; while most of the teachers at my school consider that tremendous progress, I'm saddened at by how far short of his potential he seems content to fall.

I honestly believe that S is one of the most (if not the most) brilliant students I have.  I have some highly impressive students (one worked through a college genetics textbook just for the hell of it, and got nearly every problem right); while S lacks the patience for these mental feats, he is able to absorb information immediately, and without really paying attention.

But he is passing by the seat of his athletic shorts, and, try as I might, I can't come up with a plan that works for him.  I've spoken with him one-on-one at length; I've met with his mother on multiple occasions; I've sat in on a meeting with his Special Ed teacher.  For a while, S would pay attention and do his work if I gave him the chance to be my teachers' assistant -- which meant that he got to come up to the board and review the practice problems with the class -- but he lost interest in that after a while.  Upon learning that he struggled with written tests, I developed an oral assessment scheme with him and his Special Ed teacher -- only to have him back out of the plan at the last minute.

Hence, the intriguing challenge of S; the tactical tango of thrusts and parries that feels so much like a chess game I can't seem to win.


  1. Wow, Mr. N! I think that that was your best post so far! Keep up the good work!

  2. Mr. N, I loved reading this post. You certainly are a master storyteller. I must know more about S!

  3. Thanks so much! I plan to continue this series -- and I'll keep you posted with S too.

  4. Wow! Im really amazed by this and hope you do continue the series.