They say what don’t kill you will make you stronger. I’m still here, so what does that mean? The hood has a way of engulfing everything in its path and spitting it back up. They say there aren’t many places for young black men like me. 75% are sitting in the pin. 20% laying in a coffin. 4% are lucky to get a job at a chicken spot. But there’s that 1% that makes something of themselves. That 1% does whatever it takes.
I’m James B. Smith. I have long black hair. The shortey love a dude with longer hair than most of their friends. I was born in Harlem but lived in Bronx all my life. I was named after my father. I guess the scars of him raping her and beating her half to death wasn’t enough for my mother. It’s bad enough that every time she looks at me, all she can see is him. Ever since he went in for life bid, all she does is lay in her bed and stick needles in her arm.
It seems if you don’t get pulled in by the diamond bags, you get pulled in by the scumbags that call themselves Bloods. My older brother was too strong for the dimes, but he needed money so he joined the Bloods and started doing crime. He used to always say, “I’m doing this so you never go to sleep hungry.” But he got so deep in the game, it ended up being that he was the only one hungry. The game ain’t nothing to play with. You got to be hungry for it or it will throw you in with the wolves.
But I’ve always known closed mouths don’t get fed. You have to give a little to get a little. Living in the hood, I would see them dudes on the corner on the way to school every day singing the same old song and dance and when I got back from school they still in the same place I left them. These dudes feel that they were put in this cage called hood and there was no way out . They feel that is all life has to given. My father was a bitch, my mother was a jokey, there no place for me but on this streets. If I don’t go and get mines who will?
If I’m not playing chess on the computer, I’m hanging with my friends. There is Charles who thinks he could be Lebron James. But he couldn’t make a jump shot if his life depended on it. Then there is B.J., Charles’ little brother who thought he was the Mac Daddy with that big hole in his ADIDAS.
Then there was my home girl Brittany, but we call her Flicks. She had a way of putting the most beautiful thing and the worst thing in a frame together.
I first started playing chess when I was 7-years-old. There was something about being able to think ahead and learning to predict what comes next. But chess is only a hobby. It will not take you any where. Then it hit me. I know what I had to earn.
There was something my mother used to say: God works in mysterious ways. That’s before the needle became more important than God. And at the very moment, I turn on the TV and there it was….my way out of the hood.
A chess tournament for $10,000 and a chance to go to Stuyvesant High School. But you must have a rank of 200 or more and I had no rank. I wasn’t raised like one of them little white prick rich kids or I didn’t have a grandfather who thought that chess would bring them closer or the parents who want their kid to be everything they wasn’t. Instead, I am a young black male from the Bronx whose never thought that he would have the opportunity to sit among other 8th graders and do the one thing I love without being judged. But I was determined to fight hard.
I spent days in the library looking at French master, British master, anything I could get my hands on. I had never stepped a foot in a library before. I always had a library card, but I never thought I would use it. The librarian could tell that I had never been in the library before. It was a small lady, probably hispanic, with long grey hair.
I approached the desk and said, “Do you have any books about chess?”
She looked up and said, “Yes. Aisle 3.”
I started reading.
She approached me and asked “What are you so interested in?”
One day on my way leaving the library I ran into Flicks. At first, I didn’t want anyone to know but I thought it would be nice to have someone to cry on when I lose. Or someone to hug if I win and get this money.
Plus my mother will be too wasted to leave her bed. Charles and BJ would be too hood for the white folks. They scare one white girl with those lame punch lines “If you go black you can’t go back.”
Then there was Flicks. She is smart. She can hide her slang, and I’m dying to be her new star in one of her new portfolios.
The day after I told Flicks about my tournament, she invited me to play chess with some of her friends. I decided to take Flicks up for her invitation. I was surprised that it wasn’t a bunch of nerds, kids with big framed glasses, and braces. In no time, I felt fine. It felt like chess was normal. There was nothing to be ashamed of.
I started to go to small tournaments in junior high school.
The first time I walked into one of these tournaments, I had never seen a gym with both rims still attached. The floor was so clean,you could eat on it without your sandwich turning black and bathroom had no graffiti at all. I now realize that I was a long way from the hood .
I was scared shitless. Every time I moved, a piece my heart dropped. The game only lasted 30 minutes, but it seemed like forever. She never looked up. She was zoned to the board. Her face was like a stone-faced killer. Each time she called “check” she would make this face like “What, you don’t want none of this?”
I failed many tests and lost my basketball games, but losing to her made me feel so bad. It took a lot from me. I lost so much confidence. It didn’t matter that I won all the rest of my games that day. I felt like I didn’t want to play chess ever again.
If I had just beat the 9 year old I would have came in first place. I also learned there was a lesson to be learned from my experience. My first lesson was: never underestimate your opponent.
The next tournament I went to, I found some friends that I used to play chess with in school. I was 4-0. I had one game left. I ended up playing one of my old friends, Anthony. While we played, we chopped it up about old times. Losing my focus, I ended up turning a game I should have won into a draw. My second lesson: no one is your friend during the game. Only opponents.
When you do something, you develop skills at what you are doing. I learned that king may the most important piece on the board. But what is a man without his woman beside him, holding him down? So with that said, you can now understand why all the power goes to the queen on the board. The best way to break a man down, go for his heart. Nothing hurts a man more than taking his woman. That’s why most people crumble when I take their queen. Even if it means the best way to do it is queen for queen. For me, these girls aren’t loyal. Which brings me to my last lesson: it’s not over til it’s over.
They say money makes the world go round. So my world is about to become square. Tournament after tournament. It was becoming harder and harder to find money to get there and back, and each tournament used to cost $5 but now it was $10. And the the final tournament costed $200 to enter. But that wasn’t the biggest problem I had.
See as much as I talk down about my mother, I lover her and us as kids never realized that becoming a parent doesn’t come with a book on how to deal with your kids, “Parenting 101.” There is one rule that I never understood. Why is it that there are some things a woman can’t teach a man?
I guess that what I’m trying to say is through it all, all I got is her and all she got is me.
I guess I’m writing this ‘cause there are people in my life I say “They’re old, so they going to die. Or they’re sick, so I need to say my goodbyes and farewells, but not my mother!!”
Losing my mother never crossed my mind. It hurt watching her in the ER due to an overdose. Watching her there and knowing that there was nothing I could do, that can eat a person up. From the inside.
I sat there thinking about all the things I wanted to tell her, about all the things I was sorry for or if I didn’t say I love you enough. I felt so weak, I fell to my knees, and begged God not to take her from me. I stayed on my knees and kept begging all night long. The next morning I was on my way to school from the hospital, I was just leaving her room when I heard a soft voice that said, “James baby, is that you? Come and sit with Momma.” I was so happy. I guess this was the start of a new life.
A week after my mom overdosed, I was helping washing clothes. I went to put her socks in her clothes drawer and I found two needles and a crack spoon that was still warm. Three weeks after I felt that things were getting better.
I remember leaving for school. When I left, she was sleeping. I got off school late, so I decided to get my mother some flowers. When I got home, she was still sleeping, so I put the flowers in some water. Then I went to tuck her in, and there was the needle still sitting in her arm.
Seeing that hurt me. That I cared about her life more than she did. I guess that she was willing to give up and leave me all alone. If she wanted to waste her life with them drugs, then I’m going to keep on living, with or without her. But I was left with a lot of questions that were left unanswered, so I needed to go to the only person who understands my mother more than I do.
All I could think about on this long drive to my father in Sing Sing is how a man could do what my father did and still live to think about it every day and not want to die. My mother loved him, and would have done anything for him. I guess my mother named me after him because I reminded her of all the good things about my father that she loved.
When he approached to the glass, I sat down I didn’t expect him to look so calm and at peace and educated. He looked nothing like the young thug who liked to hurt women like I expected. He looked at me and said, “Are you taking care of her?” And then sent me an envelope with $200 and said, “Keep playing chess,” and walked away. But I still had so many questions that were unanswered and how the hell did he know that I was playing chess?
After waiting, the day was here. It was game time. Flicks looked at me and said, “No matter what happens, you are still the only man I’ve ever wanted.” She then gave me a big kiss, and walked away. I’m not going to lie, my legs felt like noodles and I was sweating bullets but it was like zero degrees in the room. I always thought that Brittany was cute, but I never felt like she would give me the time of day. “No”, I said, “I gotta get my head in the game. It’s game time.”
My first opponent was a little white girl with green eyes, and she looked like she was more scared than me. I was beginning to be able to see her fear and it gave me confidence. With each piece I moved, I saw her lose her confidence. I beat her and moved to the second round.
My next opponent was a young Mexican boy. He could only speak Spanish, and all he could say was, “My name is Jesus.” Looking at him, he looked dumb. It looked like he couldn’t even read the label on the board or figure out which piece was black and white. I forgot the first rule I learned while working to get here (don’t underestimate your opponents). But I guess I understood when he said, “Jaque mate.” I lost, but now I understood if I won it, any chance at winning this tournament I had to use. Everything I learned in my struggles to get where I am now. Plus, I worked too hard to get this far and I was not going to give up now.
My third opponent looked more focused on his music than on playing this game. By me seeing him not focused, I decided to also not focus. Keep looking in the stands for Flicks. Finally when I decided to get my head in the game, it was over. I had lost.
My next opponent was Linda, the Chinese girl I had played in my first tournament, but now I knew her name and her game, and I was going to bring my A-game and something new up my sleeve. Do you remember the librarian I met while searching in the library? It just so happens that she was two-time chess champion. She showed me something which is called the “French Opening.” It goes like this: pawn to E4, knight to F3, pawn to D4, knight to C3, bishop to E3, and last but not least bishop to D3. I sat through all this whole game I had this glow of confidence and if it couldn’t get any better, my mother was clean for six months now and there cheering me on at the tournament. But I still didn’t see Flicks.
This was the last step, but I was nowhere ready for what came next. I was walking toward my board, and I looked and there was Flicks. Flicks was my final opponent. I didn’t even know she played chess. This was the longest and hardest game of my life. I had to sort my emotions from my thoughts or it would’ve been tragedy in this game. But if I was willing to lose, it would be for her. I wouldn’t have any regrets or any second thoughts about it. I know that the rules are that I must look at her as my opponent, but she’s not my opponent, she’s my friend. I really didn’t care that I lost the tournament because I had something better. I had friends and family that love me. And that’s something school can’t teach you or money can’t buy you.
While I was playing chess, my mom was at work, trying to get me a future. My mom had applied me for a spot in Stuyvesant and little did I know, one of the judges was the director of Stuyvesant. He was amazed by my intelligence and gave me an opportunity at Stuyvesant.
I won two out of five games, and walked away with a strong head and an understanding of life. My mom has been clean for a year and six months. Brittany and I have been dating for a year now. The last time I heard about Charles and DJ, they were involved in a gunfight with some group of kids that call themselves Young Stunners. DJ was killed and Charles is doing twelve years in prison for drugs. My father and I write each other all the time. I’ve been in Stuyvesant for at least a year now. I attain all A’s, and I work at a chicken spot part time to pay for my stay at Stuyvesant. As for Flick, she’s that one percent that I was talking about. She is working part-time for a newspaper and the best photographer that Stuyvesant ever had. That’s why they say what don’t kill you makes you stronger. But I’m still here. What does that mean?