Wednesday 9 July 2014

the last shall be first

The title is from the bible: Matthew 20:16 but more it's a triumphant vindication of Caitlin Moran's position that if you dispossess, marginalise and ignore the contributions of  the black, female, gay, or wheel-chaired section of your population, then you end up with a stupider country.  Legislators and large rich white men please pay attention: you/we have problems that need creative solutions, you don't have adequate answers. Intermediate School IS 318 has been in the news because they've won another chess championship. You don't expect this because a high proportion of the enrollment comes from black, latino and the 'wrong sort of Asian' backgrounds. 60% of the families are below the Federal poverty line.  Although this is changing as middle class kids are getting shipped into IS 318 because their parents want Jimmy Jr to win championships.

It will be easier to maintain the status quo if you believe that it's all due to Elizabeth Spiegel their full time chess-coach, who is a pretty hot chess player herself, but she graduated to a full-time position from a part-time post because the kids were hungry for more chess. And she got her foot in the door because she was sent there by a non-profit called Chess-in-the-Schools. There must have been some interest in the benefits of chess from somebody in the IS-318 hierarchy or they'd never have contacted the non-profit. Spiegel appears from her blog to be on maternity leave at the moment and had some things to say about being pregnant.   There's a film called Brooklyn Castle which may have the answer to the back-story.

Or you might prefer to put it down to a 1-in-a-million quirk like Rochelle Ballantyne who at age 13 gave Garry Kasparov Га́рри Ки́мович Каспа́ров a run for his money in 2008 and went on to get a scholarship to U Texas Dallas and then Stanford.  Except she wasn't the best player in IS-318, she just made the best hook for the film

Me, I prefer to believe that you can lick it up from the stones: there are smart kids lurking unnoticed in the dark corners of our society - and yours Ukraine. There is a lot to be said for chess - the game has enough complexity to be a challenge; it is embedded in indo-european culture but has now become universally available; it is language-independent; it requires no kit (zeks play it in the gulag with bits of paper for pieces); each game is of finite length; you can play again and learn from your errors; you can improve with practice; it is amenable to being taught; success in the game empowers other aspects of life; its relentless and unforgiving logic requires concentration and application; there is scope for innovation, experimentation and daring; losing is not the end of the world (nobody loses an eye).

But I want to be clear that I am not beating a drum for chess. I can play chess but I lacked the application to get to be any good at it.  For me the take-home from IS-318 is that not everyone in the school plays chess and if you gave them the chance to learn to code, like in CoderDojo, you'd find a similar number of kids who'd be up for that.  There would be some overlap between the groups but it wouldn't be complete. If you gave a random selection the chance to cut chunks off a block of cheese that weighed 500g +/-5g, then you'd find plenty who could grow into that skill and make a living wasting very little. Or what about a fixit school that would repair vacuum-cleaners, microwaves, bicycles and radios for the community. They could move on to cars just as soon as they get legal to drive. If you think about the life-skills on such a list you'll recognise yourself or some other kid on the block, who could do such-a-thing like a natural but got better with practice.  You want to be careful not to label yourself or that other kid as I/s/he can't do X, like I stoutly maintain that I should not be allowed out in a lab.  Because you'd be surprised what you can do when/if you shake off the steamer-trunk of baggage and give it a go.

And I want to be doubly clear that getting to Stanford, or becoming fairy-tale successful like a princess, doctor, lawyer, fashion model, millionaire soccer player or member of U2 is not the only route to a happy and fulfilling life and sometimes it's not even that. They also serve who can make the perfect latte like my Dau.I.  I've spent the last 10 weeks weighing out 200g of powered milk to make bottles for my orphan lambs - I'm a zen-master of lamlac now and don't need the scales.  And we might change the title:
The last won't be last they'll just be

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