“Only the strong make it to Saratoga”
With so many documentaries the past few years focusing on adolescent education and the stressful amounts of work our society has deemed appropriate for kids to undertake rather than allowing them to be kids, a film like Katie Dellamaggiore‘s Brooklyn Castle is a welcome—albeit subtle—spin on the concept. Depicting the struggles of a school caught amidst the failing economy and the pressures put upon children of poor families yearning to witness a member of their clan go to college, the movie tells its story through the students instead of simply regurgitating statistics and ‘professional’ expertise. We all know how important math, science, English, and social studies are to one’s education, Intermediate School 318 is one of the few establishments proving how extracurriculars are just as vital towards reaching collegiate success.
Sadly, as evidenced by the country, New York State, and New York City’s ever-diminishing budgets and constant ease at sacrificing the arts in order to compensate, America doesn’t agree. To us it’s all about the numbers game and standardized testing and which school ‘deserves’ the bigger piece of the government assistance pie. Despite watching our nation’s intellectual prowess spiral to new depths while the rest of the world reaches new heights, we somehow keep wondering what it is we’re doing wrong. So we erase more sports programs, cut the band, layoff teachers willing to stay afterhours and engage students, and cater how we mold minds to an unproven system that has more to do with winning bigger budgets than raising future generations to not repeat our mistakes.
Dellamaggiore doesn’t completely ignore statistics on her journey with I.S. 318’s junior high chess team, though. No, she leaves in one of the most impressive truths right at the start. This Brooklyn public school not only has some of the brightest minds in its classes but also the most prolific chess program the country has ever seen. I may have the exact stats wrong, but I gathered they’ve had twenty-six national championships in just ten years. In the past five they’ve graduated the youngest master level player ever and our best hope for the first African-American female master. Over sixty-five percent of the school comes from homes below the federal poverty level and yet may be the hardest working kids from coast to coast. And come 2014, they may not even have a team.
This is the state of America and no matter how hard we petition or hope to elect the right people willing to change today’s prevalent viewpoints on our education system, it will only get worse. It’s the type of story ripe for hyperbole and call-to-action pleas for charity and yet the filmmakers for the most part refuse to engage in such manipulation. As a result Brooklyn Castle becomes a portrait of five kids of disparate backgrounds and hardships growing up in the land of opportunity. Are they all genius players? No. Are they all better human beings and improved students because of the game? There’s no question. From aspirations of law school, political heights, or simply getting into high school, these kids are fighting for their futures armed with chess as their greatest weapon.
Spanning two school years, the camera follows Rochelle Ballantyne‘s transition from junior high to ninth grade; Alexis Parades as he takes the exam necessary to be place inside one of New York City’s specialized high schools; charismatic Pobo Efekoro‘s eighth grade dream of running for school president; Justus Williams‘ prodigal entrance as an incoming sixth grader willing to take the train from the Bronx to improve upon his already expert level rating; and Patrick Johnston‘s ADHD-afflicted novice needing the game to help him concentrate in his classes. They aren’t all savants looking to become professionals—they are future doctors and businessman mostly from immigrant parentage putting in the work to excel. And if chess helps them get there, why should we be so quick to take it away?
Through the tireless actions of Vice Principal John Galvin, chess guru Elizabeth Vicary, and the nonprofit organization Chess-in-the-Schools, 318 has become one of the region’s best. The nerds have become the jocks, people travel out of their way to enroll, and some top players are even bestowed with the honor to have a grandmaster tutor. We hear Pobo admit chess got him off the streets and on track with his education, watch Rochelle balance grade point average and her dream, and become invigorated by Alexis’ drive to be successful so he may help his parents pay the bills they have so selflessly done since his birth. These are kids loving life, discovering that imperfection isn’t failure, and learning the meaning of words like ‘community’ and ‘team’.
Some of the parents may be over-bearing. Some may think they have their child’s best interests at heart but really are blind to their happiness. For the I.S. 318 chess team to truly succeed it’s the players who must rise to the occasion. They plan fundraisers, spearhead campaigns to grow awareness, and are the best they can be. This documentary doesn’t inundate us with ‘easy’ answers everyone has a different opinion on. Everyone involved knows chess isn’t the solution—putting a team in every school won’t miraculously change how our kids learn. What Brooklyn Castle portrays is one microcosm of society unwilling to give up on its dreams. Like us, Rochelle, Alexis, Pobo, Justus, and Patrick hold their future in their hands. They’re willingness to battle for it at age twelve is bona fide inspiration.