I turned the book so the kids could see the owl and the pussycat; I’d recited it hundreds of times as a bedtime story, and I knew the ending by heart:
“ … they danced by the light of the moon, the moon, the moon, they danced by the light of the moon.”
I closed the book and looked down at a dozen smiling faces.
“Boys and girls,” the teacher said, “What do we say to Mr. Conradt for coming to read to us today?”
“Thank you, Mr. Conradt,” a dozen voices chorused.
“Mr. Conradt, we’re going to have free time,” the teacher said. “Could you stay for a while longer?”
Little faces looked up hopefully from the half-circle they’d formed around my kindergarten-sized chair. They’d laughed in all the right places … the bong-trees, the piggy-wig, the turkey who lives on the hill … and I was in no hurry to leave.
“I’d love to,” I said.
“Fifteen minutes, boys and girls,” the teacher said as the kids fanned out across the room. “Remember … inside voices.”
An oversized jigsaw puzzle was laid out on a countertop; crayons and coloring sheets were spread across a low table; a bucket of Legos was dumped into the middle of the floor.
“Mr. Conradt, would you like to play a game with me?” a little voice asked. I’d seen him sitting off to the side while I read to the class; imagine Dennis The Menace wearing Harry Potter’s glasses.
“Sure! What would you like to play?” I said, expecting something like “Chutes And Ladders” or “Candyland”.
“Do you know how to play chess?”
“Uh … yeah. A little bit …”
The teacher came up behind the 6-year-old and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Kevin is a very good chess player,” she said. The note of caution in her voice was unmistakable: “Unless you know how to play more than ‘a little bit’, don’t play for money.”
Against a kindergartner?! The gauntlet had been thrown.
“Let’s play some chess, Kevin,” I said.
“I’ll get my chess set,” he said, heading for the cubbies where the kids kept their coats. I looked at the teacher with raised eyebrows.
“Kevin keeps a travel chess set in his backpack,” she explained with a smile that said, “Don’t say I didn’t warn you”.
Kevin took a seat across the table from me and opened a hinged chessboard that also served as a case for the chessmen. He pushed half the pieces across the table. “You can be white,” he said, placing the black pieces on his side of the board. I watched him surreptitiously. After all, it’s been a while …
“I can never remember if the castles go in the corners,” I said, rearranging my pieces to match his.
“They’re called ‘rooks’”, he said. “But that’s OK, my sister calls them castles, too. She’s four.”
He waited while I finished setting up my side of the board.
“You go first,” he said. I moved a pawn two spaces forward.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” he asked. I glanced up in time to catch the end of a smile that was more Dennis The Menace than Harry Potter. And I had a feeling I was being hustled; I left the pawn where I’d moved it.
Within a couple of minutes there were only a handful of white chessmen still in play.
“What do you want to be when you grow up, Kevin?” I asked, studying the board. I moved a pawn, which he quickly captured with his knight.
“A professional chess player,” he said. “Or a monster truck driver.”
I moved my remaining bishop and Kevin sat back in his chair.
“Checkmate,” he announced.
I frowned at the chessboard, then at the teacher. She nodded once, and gave me an “I told you so” smile.
“Would you like to play again?” Kevin asked; the clock over the chalkboard said we still had eleven minutes of free time.
“But I want him to color a picture with me!” another voice interrupted; she was wearing a pink “Hello Kitty” T-shirt, and I remembered that she laughed when Pussy said to the Owl “You elegant fowl …”
“Next time, Kevin,” I said, accepting an Elmo coloring sheet from the Hello Kitty girl. I got the feeling Kevin rarely had someone take him up on his offer of a second game. “Thank you for playing, Mr. Conradt,” he said, putting the pieces back inside the folding chess board. As he slipped the game into his backpack I heard the teacher ask “How did you do, Kevin?”
“I won,” he said matter-of-factly.
I hope they invite me back sometime soon. Next time I’ll choose the game, and it won’t be so easy.
See, when I was six I thought I might want to be a professional Candyland player. That or a monster truck driver.