Juvenile Hall Hip-Hop Chess Camp Diary Day 1
Today the HHCF was happy to be back for another summer session at juvenile hall. As you may recall, last summer we were at Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center teaching chess and life strategies. We returned today and it was amazing.
This morning I went in and met some amazing young souls. Each day we go to three units. They are held in regular classrooms. Each visit to the hall is always emotionally trying. If you have never been to a juvenile hall, it can be depressing at times. It takes some real psychological and philosophical preparation. Because I have done a work in St. Louis with Incarcerated youth, and did prison volunteer work before, a lot of this is not new to me. Nevertheless, it is not easier.
I think because my kids are older now, many of the teen boys and girls there resemble my own kids and others in my family. I reminded myself as I approached to treat these kids like family.
The first kids were in Unit 4. A cool group of about 12 boys entered my classroom.
“We finna just sit here and play chess all morning?” one boy said defiantly with a scowl on his face as he sat down reluctantly.
“No” I said calmly, “We’re going to talk about a lot more.”
I started by just introducing myself. I talked about my history. I explained to them all the mistakes I made as a kid. I talked to them about how my school counselor at Oceana High School (Mr. King) saw me as a journalist before I saw it in myself. I went onto tell them about how I met Eazy E and how my interview with him led me to write for the rest of my life.
I explained the point of it all was that when I couldn’t find any value in myself, Mr. King saw a writer. His ability to see me as a writer changed me forever. I reminded them that no matter the mistakes they may have made that they are still young and brilliant. I reminded them that I do not judge them in any way and that I am not here to save them. “I cannot save you: I said. " I am not here to be a savior. I am only asking you to allow me to give you some tools to help you make better decisions. If you let me do that, you will save yourself. You won’t need me.”
Then I shared my book Bobby, Bruce & the Bronx: The Secrets of Hip-Hop Chess with them. They looked at the photos of me and Eazy and Pac. After laughing at me, they asked me about what Hip-Hop was like way back and about the fashion of the time. It was really cool.
From there we just jumped into the game of kings. When I asked how many of them knew the game, 80% of the kids raised their hands. I then chose two teens to teach the others how the pieces moved. HHCF is always using peer to peer training to help young people engage and inspire one another.
Between the gaming I shared the life lessons from the book. The class was amazing and the kids were supremely inspired to come back Tuesday.
After a short break I went back to Unit 4 to meet a second group of kids. Another group of 12. They were a little harder on sight than the first group. A short heavily tattooed teen walked in flexing his muscles. Despite wearing a long sleeved sweater you could see he had size. He came in yelling that he was the best in the game and he didn’t care who thought they were better- including me. I looked at him and blinked- unmoved.
Another boy with the same skin as Wesley Snipes sat down casually and pointed to the kid who had been flexing. Half slouching in his chair he stated “You gotta beat him in chess first. If you can beat him, we’ll listen to whatever you have to say. If you lose, we out.”
The kid flexing smiled and nodded “Straight up.”
I smiled back.
“Before we do that, I have to say something. Without asking permission” I went into the same talk as I did with the previous group. I shared the book again.
The young man with the tattoos looked up on the board at my outline of piece values ( Q = 9 pts. R = 5 pts, B = 3 pts, N = 3 pts, P = 1 pt.).
Interrupting my introduction he said “What is all that?” in a wrinkled tone with a wrinkled forehead.
“Oh this?” I said in a relaxed tone. “You’re looking at the value of all the chess pieces. I thought you was ‘the man’?” I said in a mocking manner.
He smiled. “Ok, ok.”
From there I went onto the conclusion of my talk. In this group all but two kids knew how to play. They caught on quick and we all played a few games. The tattooed kid was good, but I won my game. Anticipating a lot of trash talk, I caught him off guard by shaking his hand and talking about all the things he did well.
By the end of the class all the kids were locked into the 64 squares of infinite combat. When class ended each kid was promising big losses to their opponent the next day.
After lunch I went into the Unit 1. I used the same pitch as the first two. 60% of the kids knew the game here. I taught the ones who didn’t as those who did just jumped into battle tactics.
Later I played a game with a strong Latino player. He was long and lean, with a close haircut and a youthful smile. Even the rugged realities of juvenile hall had not robbed him of his smile. I was inspired by his inner peace and the preservation of his joy.
We went into our game and I played him very soft. He was the wrong one to do that with. My laziness was met with a wave of aggressive tactics. Before I knew it, he had my king running for the corner. In the panic, I broke my queen out to save the situation. She defended me well until I slipped and she was sniped by his bishop.
As he was closing in to finish me off class ended. He gave a sinister giggle and postured up.
“Saved by the bell!” I shouted like a man in the ring with Tyson in his prime.
“Just kidding. You were gonna get me. I’mma give you this one. See you tomorrow.”
“Ok, ok!!” he said laughing hard. I will see you tomorrow.”
Pt. 2 will get posted about 10 PM PST. I really love our time with these kids. You guys be well.
Defend The Crown,