Saving Lives in Mississippi -- Birth of the Wingfield Chess Team

Saving Lives in Mississippi -- Birth of the Wingfield Chess Team

Aug 23, 2017, 9:42 PM |

The title of this post may seem over-dramatic, but when you consider that the Wingfield High School Chess Team formed amidst neighborhoods plagued by generational poverty, crime, rampant gun violence, gang activity and crushing academic malaise, I begin to think I didn't word it seriously enough...

My name is Beth Thrasher, I'm a math teacher at Wingfield HS in Jackson, Mississippi (USA), and a chess hobbyist (rated about 1000) turned coach.  But this blog isn't about me, its about my students, my scholars.

"I thought you knew how to play chess?"

Their story starts in December of 2016 when Wingfield was on the 9th day of a 10 day "shutdown".  You see, one of the WORST parts about high-stakes testing in public schools is that soooo much emphasis is placed on testing that any student NOT taking a standardized test on test days must stay imprisoned in the same classroom for up to 8 hours, only moving to eat lunch.  Its awful.  Its torture.

So after staring at the same kids for 6+ hours a day for 8 straight days, I broke from math and asked if anyone knew how to play chess.  The room ERUPTED, "I do! I do!  I play on the computer all the time."  Soon after sitting these insistent kids down, it became clear to me why common core instruction is so important.  The "computer" chess players had no idea how to set up the board nor move the pieces.  

"I thought you knew how to play chess?" I asked each one.

"I do, I just play on the computer, so the spaces just light up to tell me where I can go."  they'd respond.

"Ahhhh so you were just given the 'answer' with no understanding of the 'process', huh?"

This was a keystone concept in common core teaching that I'd been trying to drill into their heads since the first day of school, and yet nothing drove my point home like this real-life example.  It was in that moment I decided to form a chess club.  We began to meet after school in my classroom where my own children would stop by and play as well.

Our Players

Many of our club members were your average, everyday kid whose tempermant and behavior wouldn't normally put them at risk.  But because they're forced to attend a "failing school" these run-of-the-mill teens had severely limited options for extracurricular enrichment.  

Nevertheless, several of our club members were most DEFINITELY those you would consider "at-risk".  A couple had already spent time in juvenile detention, some admitted to drug use, some gang affiliations, still others were severely academically behind.  But about 3 times a week... we'd all gather and leave cares of the world behind over the 64 magical squares.


Throwing Ourselves Into the Woodchipper 

One thing every teenager craves is a venue in which to "prove themself".  By January, the urge to test the waters of competition overtook us.   Unfortunately, we underestimated the buzzsaw we'd be running into (*insert boisterous laughter*).  

We brought 7 teens to our team's first scholastic tournament.  Out of the 35 games they played, only 3 were wins (and that was when Wingfield students ended up playing each other at the bottom of the pairings).  I feared that they'd be discouraged, they'd give up.   But their response only reinforced my belief that Jackson, Mississippi houses some of the most raw, unbridled human potential on the planet -- they decided to work, and work HARD. 


(Above:  The team before their first scholastic tournament, accompanied by Mrs. Thrasher's biological children Clayton and Sophia who also train with the team -- a truly "family affair")

Set Goals.  Crush Goals.  Repeat.

Over the next few months we sold chocolate, t-shirts, asked for online donations and used those funds to travel all around the state to compete.  Watching these kids win their first tournament games against perfect strangers was breathtaking.  As they trained harder and harder, many began to outplay me, the "coach".   LOL.  I know, I know, no biggie against a 1000 level player, but it was a big feat at the time, and their confidence soared.


(Above:  Traveling to the state championships @ Mississippi State University)

Our lowest rated player showed dramatic improvement in his classroom grades.  We watched several shy young ladies find their voice and confidence, and one young man even cited particpation on the team as his reason for leaving gang life.  Several kids simply used the team as a way to escape depression or a traumatic home life.  

By the time the state championships rolled around in March, the team was seasoned, determined and had almost doubled in size.  Though we placed 7th in team standings the kids were invigorated and motivated to take lessons of patience and mindfulness learned on the chessboard to other areas of their lives.

As we begin the 2017-2018 scholastic tournament campaign, has GRACIOUSLY donated premium memberships to our scholars so that they might be able to use the unlimited tactics and lesson training to prepare for a run at the title of being Mississippi State Team Champions!


(Above:  after the State Championships last year)

(Above:  our 2nd tournament EVER, at the University of Mississippi / OleMiss, where the kids got to see the monument of James Meredith and hear the story of his journey to break segregation barriers)



(Above:  getting to eat lunch between rounds at Ole Miss' brand new basketball stadium -- many kids from Jackson rarely get to leave the city and visit college campuses, this was a true ancillary treat during our tournament travels)

Join us on our journey and follow this blog to stay just as invigorated as our Wingfield Scholars!  

This Saturday (August 26th) will mark the first tournament of this campaign.  I've NEVER seen the kids look as intense as they've been in recent weeks, looking forward to opening up this competition season.

Come with us and join the Wingfield family!

PLEASE COMMENT BELOW ABOUT WHAT MORE YOU'D LIKE TO KNOW ABOUT OUR TEAM...  I was thinking of doing individual player feature bios at the very least but would LOVE suggestions!

Best Regards,