I am often pleasantly surprised by the reappearance of former students of mine. Whether it is at school when they pop by to pick up a younger sibling or in the aisles of Target where we are all searching for a bargain. It's always interesting and confounding to see how voices change and bodies grow. They usually have me at a distinct advantage since I haven't changed much beyond the fringe of hair around my temples has become mostly gray. They are all grown up.
I have a fond memory or two to share with most of the kids who stop by, even if I have to pad the exchange a little by asking about how their grades are, or who they still see from the old gang from elementary school. It's nice of them to remember me, but there is only one kid that I still look for: Denny.
In my first year of teaching, I was sitting at an Apple II GS, trying to figure out what the previous computer lab teacher might have left as a password, when I turned to my right and found him standing there. "Whatcha doin?" he asked.
At the time, I didn't have the management skills to question him about his whereabouts. I told him I was trying to get the computer to work. He nodded and waited for me to return to work. "Did you know it was boxes like this that made the dinosaurs in 'Jurassic Park?'"
"You can make dinosaurs with that?" He continued to stare, intent on seeing what I might make the box on the table do next. Immediately I felt embarrassed that all I was managing was a few clicks and a beep that told me that I wouldn't be using that machine anytime soon.
We were both surprised when his third grade teacher stuck her head in my door and exclaimed, "Denny! Leave Mister Caven alone. He's got work to do. You should be at recess!" So we bid a quick farewell, and I looked forward to the moment when he would come back with his class and I had the whole lab up and running. We might not be designing computer graphic dinosaurs, but maybe we could draw one in KidPix.
As I gained my sea legs as a teacher, Denny continued his interest in what I had to offer. He was one of the first kids to take me up on my early morning chess challenge. I had a number of chess boards in my closet, and I told kids who came before school that if they wanted to learn how to play chess, I would teach them. Denny was there nearly every morning. Eventually, he became familiar enough with the basics that I could get his help with other kids, setting up the board and explaining how it wasn't like checkers, and each piece had its own special way of moving. I also told them all that anyone who beat Mister Caven could keep the board. Every kid who ever heard this immediately took it to heart and challenged me abruptly. Denny was the only one who made a point of making it a regular part of his week. Not every day, but we had a game once or twice a week, and he kept me thinking as I walked around the room, preparing for the upcoming day, returning to make my move and then walking away again while he pondered his strategy.
He came back in fourth grade. He came back in fifth, and he noticed that I had a book: "Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess."
"Is that how you beat me?"
I told him there were no secrets, and he was welcome to take a look. We didn't play that day as he pored over the diagrams inside. When the bell rang, I told him he could borrow the book. He thanked me and left to start his day. As the rest of the year went on, I saw Denny less and less. Fifth grade required more of his attention, both academically and socially, but he still found time to drop by once a week or so for a game. One day I realized that I hadn't seen my Bobby Fischer book for a month or so, I asked Denny if he had lost it.
"I haven't finished reading it," he complained.
Reading it? If he was serious about reading all three hundred and fifty-two pages, I wasn't going to stop him. Weeks passed, and in the spring of 1999, Denny beat me. I could make an excuse about how I was busy turning on the computers in the lab or checking attendance or some other adult preoccupation, but the truth was, he caught me in a six-move checkmate. I looked at the board, and he smiled.
"I guess this is mine." It would be impossible to say who was more proud.
After that, Denny didn't come by as often. He had made his mark. He told some of his friends they should check out Mister Caven's Chess Club. After he was promoted to middle school, I waited to hear about how he had taken all those other sixth graders by storm, but he was done. I heard he had moved away. I wondered if he might come back to visit.
I wonder if he's still playing.