This year I signed P up for his school's chess team. I didn't think he'd be particularly good at it, but he's spectacularly unathletic and awkward with other kids. I really wanted him to have a chance to work hard at something, lose gracefully, and be with other kids. Chess team seemed like just the ticket.
However...I didn't want him to go to tournaments. Losing during practice was one thing, losing in a competitive environment was quite another. Throughout the season I let tournament after tournament slip by, not signing him up for any of them. But as the number of opportunities dwindled, P started feeling the pressure to compete in just one tournament...they like to get all of the kids out at least once. And so, with some misgivings, a few weeks ago I signed him up for a tournament.
The entire week prior we emphasized the good parts of the tournament (Hot dogs for lunch! Candy and snacks! Participant medal!) while also warning him that he might lose each and every match. It was hard to tell how much P was taking in...he's a kid that lets his frustration show in a heartbeat, but keeps every other thought and emotion very close to the vest. I hoped that some of it was sinking in.
On the day of the tournament I was throwing-up-nervous, terrified that P would get too frustrated, or cry, or get lost, or act weird enough to draw the ridicule of his peers. And not only did I not have to just sit back and imagine the carnage, I had to witness it personally. Parents have to stay and chaperone the kids, so I went right along with him, my backpack stuffed with snacks, video games, and a battery back-up pack. I parked myself at a table in the cafeteria, which served as a lounge during and between rounds, and let him do his thing.
That day "his thing" was playing the best chess he'd ever played, along with socializing more with his teammates than I had ever seen. The chess coach had told me that the kids go out, play chess, and then come back and immediately play outside or play video games. P did both admirably. He handled his one loss and one stalemate gracefully, and accepted his three wins with equal grace. And between rounds he was right there with the other kids, playing our his iPad or Nintendo DS, showing the other kids his game, commenting on theirs, and running around the playground when he decided to spend his between-round minutes outside. Chess rounds take about an hour, but only 5 to 20 minutes of that is actual playing, so he spent the majority of his time in unstructured interaction with the other kids.
And, for the first time, he was indistinguishable. He didn't stick out. If I had taken a photo, you wouldn't have been able to pick him out as weird or different. You'd think that I would have been bored at an elementary school chess tournament with my son ignoring me and being too shy to talk to the other adults, but I couldn't stop watching and marveling at his experience.
It was amazing.
This year our schedule is too full to attend any more tournaments...religious ed obligations, Cub Scout obligations, and family events all ate up what little was left of the chess season. But next year, it will be a priority. He can't wait. Neither can I.