Monday, December 01, 2008

Beyond pawns

Helena is frantic as we're gathering her things for school. Today's Thursday! It's chess club! She needs her folder! Where's her folder? Did I remember to put it in her backpack?!

I reassure her, and she finally sheds a little light on her panic. Today is the last day of this chess club session. Medals are to be awarded. She is convinced she has no chance of receiving one if she fails to bring her folder. I think she has little chance, period, being the youngest of the lot, but her enthusiasm tramples my negativity. We will cross the bridge of her disappointment when we come to it.

The workday finished, I run into Helena with her father just outside the school, so we can all walk home together. Helena reaches down into her jacket to pull out her medal.

I lavish her with obligatory congratulations and adulation, how I proud I am of her. But eventually I have to ask, cautiously. How many people received medals? Three, she tells me. The look in J-F's eyes tells me he knows and understands exactly what my line of questioning is, and that it's OK to proceed. How many kids are in your group? Eleven, she tells me, and only three of us got medals!

R-- got a medal because she's really the best, and the oldest, and she's really good. Helena got a medal because she had the most stickers on her folder, for homework problems completed. And M-- got one too, I'm not really sure why.

Flattery gushes more sincerely now. I'm ashamed of that moment in which I saw my own mother in me, doubting my daughter's accomplishments. I tell myself that it is a natural hesitation, measuring my response against a world where everyone gets a star for attendance, reserving it for justly deserved gains.

A week later, she's still proud and wants as much as ever to learn chess. We keep working through the problems she never finished. We set up the board to match the diagrams, so we can more easily see solutions.

J-F drops Helena at school one morning. He tells me they caught the attention of one of the other mothers. She seeks confirmation: So that's Helena. She got a medal? My son didn't get a medal. Do you coach her?

J-F tells her we play chess with Helena every day until she cries.
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