A letter to President Obama from teacher, activist, and humanitarian Joseph Ocol.
He received a personal response from the President just a few weeks later.
Dear Mr. President,
I’ve been wondering how I could compel you to come to my school and meet my pupils, and engage in a game of Chess. I’ve been asking myself, “What are his criteria? What moves him to say, yes, this is a cause I wish to align with. These are people I want to meet.”
Is it to have saved a life? I’ve done that.
Is it to have offered a poor, destitute student a glimmer of hope about his future? I’ve done that.
Is it to show young people a way that they can feel good about themselves? I’m doing that too.
Is it to have demonstrated that with a little encouragement, even the least likely of students can achieve amazing things? I’ve done that too.
Or is it something else you seek?
I’ll tell you my story and when I’m done, I hope to have met your criteria, and that you will accept my invitation, or better yet, you might even wish to have us visit you, where Mrs. Obama and your beautiful daughters can engage in a game as well.
I teach at John Marshall Metropolitan High School on the impoverished West Side of Chicago. A few years ago, reeling from the emotion of losing a student to gun violence right outside our doors, and with only lukewarm support from my Principal, I started a Chess Club. My goal was three-fold: One, to keep the kids safe inside the school during those extremely dangerous hours immediately after class when gang coercion is brazenly pursued here, and the ensuing violence is often tragic. Two, to develop students’ thinking and strategy skills in a way that parallels real life. The third part of my goal was to establish a learning partnership with our neighboring middle school, wherein my students would teach their students, thereby fostering an atmosphere of leadership and inclusion.
The Principal at Faraday Elementary immediately agreed, and together, we’ve written quite a little success story. The Chess program at Faraday has resulted in improved grades and improved school ranking from level 3 to level 1. The students in my program have excelled in Chess beyond anyone’s expectations. They’ve been recognized at state level, and among our numerous achievements, we were recently honored by our Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and City Council, who passed a Resolution recognizing the Marshall Chess Team as the top all African-American high school chess team in the state of Illinois.
In order to take this momentum forward, we need endorsement. Our ultimate goal is that our teaching model will be adopted by high schools and middle schools everywhere. But we face very real challenges because Chess is not highly supported in many of these schools. The Faraday Principal and I have been funding this program mostly out of our pockets; paying for the kids’ transportation to tournaments, and feeding them on these excursions.
Marshall High School promotes activity, the cardinal of which is Basketball. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of the Basketball trophy cases that decorate our hallways, but I fear that the excessive glorification of pro sport creates false hope, because, for every child who makes the big league, thousands are left on the sidelines, watching.
In addition, we’ve now known for decades that the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic don’t cut it anymore. Our children need life skills to get them through life’s toughest challenges. Physical prowess alone won’t do it, and spectators don’t get paid. We must promote activities that foster thinking, and develop strategy, not unattainable dreams of endorsements and millionaire lifestyles. Chess develops thinkers who can thrive in difficult times. Times like right now.
I hope we can be completely honest about the future potential of the athletes vs the thinkers. In Chess, even if they don’t win the game, they win the life skills. The positive impact of playing Chess is measurable both immediately and over the long term. It shows in their grades, their participation in school, their attitude. It shows in how they process information and make decisions. It shows in their renewed understanding that for every move they choose to make, there is a consequence.
You are the perfect person to help me promote this important message. I know you’re a Basketball fan. The nation knows it. The whole world knows it. It’s a part of your image that is cherished and idolized by kids everywhere. But we also know you’re a realist, a strategist, and most importantly, a fan of fair and equal opportunity for all.
I’d like the world to see you sit with one of my pupils and have a game of Chess. I’d like to watch you challenge him, and be challenged by him. I’d like to watch as each of you question yourself, think before acting, and learn from the consequences of each decision you make.
It’s really not about Chess, it’s about life. I don’t want to breed a stadium full of spectators. I want to build graduating classes full of thinkers, who are ready to make difficult decisions in this difficult life. If you share the core belief that thinking and strategy skills will take the next generation farther, or at the very least that our schools should make room for programs like Chess, and promote them as aggressively as they do sports, then please act now.
Please help me take this idea to the next level; the idea of students teaching students in a game where there are no losers because the goal for each student is to become a better thinker than he or she is today.