From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

The Fragile Eight

Hold a true friend with both hands.

African Proverb

“Please,” appealed the principal. “Nobody can handle him. Please take him.”

It was the fall of 1987, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She stood in the spacious hall with Brad Earlewine, the new D-Level special education teacher, discussing eight-year-old Roscoe Williams. This child’s aggressive behavior seemed devoid of sensitivity and reason, yet he was so likable. The veteran principal couldn’t understand the boy.

Roscoe was a hyperactive, severely learning-disabled child with a communication disorder. He couldn’t walk down a hall without causing trouble. He was a whirl of motion; a tiny, black-bespectacled tempest in a teapot. A spindly-legged catastrophe dressed in a Superman cape. There was talk about a behavior disorder condition to add to the baggage he was already carrying.

After batteries of tests, Roscoe was placed in Earlewine’s class. The minute the pair looked at each other, there was a certain magic, like two elements combining, both stimulating and challenging each other. Single, caring and gentle, Earlewine held a degree in special education and even trained for the priesthood.

A maverick to tradition, he looked for ways to get inside his kids’ heads, trying to find a key. His eight “Fragile Ds” as he soon called them, provided his first experience at this level. The bunch had it all. Some were orphans, some sexually abused. Some were full of rage, some immeasurable sorrow. Some possessed every kind of handicap, even genius imprisoned by mixed-up neurology. Like human pincushions stuck with dozens of fluttering labels, they were often the butt of cruel jokes.

“We just don’t stand being called names!” he instructed his kids hotly. “Face up to them! Be brave. Don’t take it!”

But they took it.

He taught the three Rs, placing each child on an individualized program of studies, but after weeks he couldn’t find the spark. One day he thought of his beloved, crusty old uncle who’d taught him chess.

Unorthodox? he mused. Yeah. Why not! It’s worth a shot.

He brought a children’s chess book to class and began reading the fairytale-like myths that explained the basics. Within a week, the Fragiles, especially Roscoe, gobbled up everything. Earlewine purchased boards for school and sent one home with each kid. While they all showed real promise with the game, Roscoe was the bold, tactical player.

A few weeks later, Earlewine, an adept player, realized that the boy was thinking five to seven moves ahead after only the barest of instruction. Roscoe started studying his teacher’s moves and beat him five times in a row.

Something else began to happen in that portable classroom as well. The Fragiles were changing. As they grasped more and more chess, a newfound courage began to emerge. They were absorbed, more confident, purposeful and even proud.

Earlewine began a before-school chess club. Dozens of kids flocked in, to be taught and played by the Fragiles. It was only a matter of time before the little team began beating junior- and senior-high chess clubs. Boldly, Earlewine entered the whole team in the chess nationals to be held in Albuquerque where eight hundred top U.S. kids would assemble for the challenge.

Tiny Roscoe Williams became America’s newest junior chess champion. Sitting atop four telephone books, he beat a large junior-high boy who never knew what happened until the checkmate. Newspaper reporters stared incredulously when Earlewine explained that his Fragiles, dressed in hand-decorated school Ts instead of classy wool blazers with team crests, were D-level special education students.

Saturday, February 11, 1989, dawned sunny after many days of snow and rain. Roscoe, full of starch and vinegar, hopped onto his bike, to deliver candy for the chess club’s recent fund-raiser. Laughing at a friend, he looked back over his shoulder, and sailed right through the stop sign. There was a screech of brakes and a horrible thud.

Roscoe hit the side of the automobile, rolled over the hood, flew thirty feet through the air, and struck the median with the right side of his head.

A week later Earlewine was finally allowed to see his young student. Roscoe’s face was unrecognizable. His body was there, but it was a hollow shell more dead than alive. Earlewine joined the ancient practice of the laying-on of hands by adding his white hands to a dozen black ones, all members of the Pilgrim’s Rest Church, who touched the bandaged broken lump under the covers. Voices sang old spirituals that rose and floated softly into the beautiful Southwest’s burgeoning spring evenings.

Roscoe was transferred to the Carrie Tingley Hospital for Crippled Children, unable to move or talk. He was tube-fed because of mouth sutures and fractured teeth. It looked as if he was going to keep his eyes, but mental functioning was almost zero.

At school, Earlewine set up a tape recording station where the Fragiles could make daily personal messages to their friend.

“Please come back, we miss you,” they’d record. “Do you remember me?”

The teacher asked that the videotapes of past chess matches be played twenty-four hours a day. He sneaked kids to the bedside. One day, Earlewine brought a chessboard and set it up in front of the zombie that was Roscoe. By now, Roscoe’s eyes were open, but no recognition, no spark, no life was living within.

“Okay, Buddy,” the teacher began, “when I hold my hand over a piece, and you see a move you want to make, blink your eyes.”

Earlewine touched pieces one at a time, pointing to all the possible moves, looking up and waiting. On the last choice, he detected the barest twitch.

“He’s awake!” the teacher ran hollering down the hall.

Nobody believed him, but Earlewine didn’t give up.

Finally released home, one day Roscoe said, “Uh-huh,” his old stock phrase. But he made little progress past that. When authorities wanted to put him in a training school for the mentally handicapped, Earlewine demanded his student back.

“I can do this! My kids can do this,” he beseeched. “Give us two weeks. Please.”

The Fragiles cut Roscoe’s food. They fed him, toileted him. They never left his side, nor did they stop talking to him or wrapping him in their arms. Earlewine told the kids they had to believe Roscoe was in there, and he would return. Every one of them surrounded their friend with such patient compassion and such unending tenderness that one day there was a spark in his eyes—just the barest flash of memory.

“You remember!” they cheered.

“Uh-huh,” he chuckled.

And the remembering continued. Things flooded back in torrents. Through the days, their old Roscoe came back for longer and longer periods, and so did the sparkle and even the two-step. The kids supplied missing pieces anytime he needed them. The little group of barrio kids and their very special teacher never broke the circle of kind and gentle caring, praise and celebrations. They simply willed him, loved him back to life.

In the spring of 1990, the Fragiles, including Roscoe, went to the Kansas City Nationals, a chess tournament that attracted one thousand players. The boy who was loved back to health won a gold medal and placed tenth in the nation.

Isabel Bearman Bucher

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: Roscoe and Brad Earlewine are still close. Every couple of months, they meet and set up the board. Roscoe volunteers time teaching chess to kids in after school programs, and Brad still dazzles his students with the game of Kings.]

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