by Carrie Trousil

It’s 3 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon at Messmer Preparatory school, and kids start tumbling in after class. They throw their coats on the library floor and laugh, twisting out the kinks imposed by desks and chairs. The room fills and the volume increases, creating the zoo-like atmosphere you would expect in a room filled with kids the average age of nine. It doesn’t last long, however. Within minutes, a woman named Miracle Cross has them seated at their tables, quiet and listening, and she starts their lessons for the day. Cross is a little woman with a big voice. She holds up a chessboard, and the kids are quick to attention. She asks the children what it is, and they answer. Next, she holds up a poster board depicting the three ‘chessboards of life’ and calls out to the kids to name each one. They yell out “home,” “community,” and “school.” “Before you move on the chessboard, just like before you do anything at home, you have to do what?” she asks. “Think before you move,” they respond. Cross continues, “You can lose a chess game. Can you lose your life? You can make a mistake in life, and sometimes you don’t get a chance to start over.” They look at her, thinking about what she says. This is the type of lesson that distinguishes Chess Academix. Quan Caston, founder of the program, strides into the room. He’s been held up, and Cross, his fiancee, has ably started the Messmer class without him. The kids are now settled into their games; you can see them concentrating, heads resting on hands and sometimes the word ‘check’ ringing out. Caston’s appearance gets their attention, though, and they look up and smile or yell greetings. Caston asks the students about how they associate the chess pieces with their lives. For example, Caston says, “Who are the pawns of Messmer prep?” and they shout, “We are!” Caston and Cross teach strategy, both on the board and in life. Sometimes, however, a good strategy can still veer off in an unintended direction. Caston’s own life is an example of this. Ten years ago, Chess Academix was not part of his plan. In fact, he didn’t even expect to be in this country, much less a school library on Fratney Street. Caston had attended school in England and while there had made friends with a man from Africa. He says, “I went to Africa to visit with him in ’93, and it was a life altering experience. I really felt comfortable, like I was at home.” Caston decided he would live there. He went back to Europe to gather his things and made a farewell trip to the states in 1995. It was then, however, that his nephew convinced him to attend the Million Man March in Washington D.C. Reluctantly, Caston put his Africa plans on hold, and made the trip east in October 1995. “To make a long story short, it (the Million Man March) ended up superseding my experience in Africa,” Caston explains. “It turned out to be really beautiful. For example, I saw one gentleman step on another gentleman’s foot in the middle of a crowd, and instead of getting mad, the guy says, ‘excuse my foot for being underneath your foot,'” he illustrates. In contrast, when Caston returned home he remembers reading a story about a young boy who shot another for stepping on his new gym shoes. He says, “I was sitting around dealing with this dichotomy, and slowly but surely my desire to go to Africa began to dissipate, and I decided I wanted to do something to help here.” Caston started tutoring math, but it was difficult because his students worked at such varied skill levels. He started playing chess with them to get their brains warmed up, and that’s when he started getting calls from parents raving about their kids’ progress at school. Math eventually took a back seat to the game, and he started focusing on chess. “There are so many applications of a chessboard. It’s a mathematical grid. You have the linguistic application, social application, and the paradigm that chess is life. We are kings, queens, rooks in life,” he adds. Out of this grew Chess Academix. Eight years later, Caston is finally making his plans to go back to Africa. Instead of going alone, however, this time he’s planning to take 100 others with him. Through the As One Association, “A1A,” in conjunction with Oprah Winfrey’s Angels Network, Caston plans to take 50 students and 50 adults to Africa in 2006. For the duration of a year, this group would teach chess-as-a-life-skill to African children, particularly those orphaned by the African AIDS epidemic. For now, however, in the library at Messmer, the students sit contentedly in the fading light. Their futures could hold going to Africa with Caston, attending college, or someday starting a family. Now, though, they’re just thinking about strategy, a tool that can help take them wherever they want to go. Chess Academix classes are currently taught at: Noah’s Arc School, Messmer Preparatory School, the YMCA Holton Youth Center, and the Pal Center. For information call: 414/372-8418.

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Chess Academix classes are currently taught at: Noah’s Arc School, Messmer Preparatory School, the YMCA Holton Youth Center, and the Pal Center. For information call: 414/372-8418.