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My husband and I are driving to the pool for an early Saturday swim before the kids wake up.
“What are your plans for the rest of the day?” he asks.
“Almond milk cappuccino. Laundry. Manicure with Liberty.” Liberty is our eight-year-old daughter.
On about lap 3, I realize a manicure might be an ironic choice – because tomorrow, Liberty is playing in her first chess tournament.
“She is the only girl from our school going to the tournament,” the chess teacher said when he called. “Is that going to be a problem?”
“A problem for whom?” I asked, wondering if for some reason this could actually be a problem.
“A, uh, problem for Liberty. I just want to make sure that she knows that her friends won’t be there with her.”
Lib has been playing chess on Mondays at lunch through a school program. She tells me there are boys and girls in the class, though I’ve never asked her in what proportion.
It may be that there are only a couple of girls, and since only five or six kids are playing in the tournament it is for mathematical reasons that only one is a girl. Or it may be that there are plenty of girls in the program but they shy away from competition. Maybe they like to play chess at school, but when it comes to the auditorium of a local junior college they are, er, getting their nails done.
I reassured the teacher that Liberty knew she was the only one of her friends participating, and the only girl. She still wanted to go.
He had another concern. “Does Liberty know that all the other kids from our school are older than her?”
Oh. This sounded more serious. Since I wouldn’t know a pawn if it kinged me, I had to ask a few more questions.
“Will she be playing against kids her own age?” Yes.
“Will she be playing against kids at her level?” Yes.
Then I guess we’re fine.
The teacher’s uncertainty has me wondering. Should I be taking the gender issue more seriously? Should I be talking to my eight-year-old about female chess heroes? Should we be watching Brooklyn Castle, a documentary about a female chess champion, instead of Ice Castles, a figure-skater/hockey-player romance?
I swim along thinking I want her to be confident when she walks into the room to play five straight games of chess. She loves nail polish more than anything, except possibly ketchup. Would pink sparkles on her fingernails give her that little energy boost? Or would I be giving her the wrong message? Am I as bad as the pageant moms who slip their four-year-old daughters tubes of pure-sugar Pixy Stix before Universal Royalty Miss Texas?
I think back to when I first heard about this tournament. The scene was more Toddlers & Tiaras than The Big Bang Theory. “Mom, can I go? Can I? Can I?” She thrust a note into my hands. “It’s a chess tournament. And there are TROPHIES.”
A quick glance at the calendar told me this might work. “Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked, signing the cheque.
“Of course, Mom. The TROPHIES are so SHINY. I hope I get one.”
So that’s how we get more girls interested in chess: shiny trophies. If we painted all the pieces pink and purple, I bet estrogen would outnumber testosterone 4 to 1.
This is the same kid who introduced me to the importance of pink footballs, soccer balls and hockey skates. She spent hours playing baseball with her Strawberry Shortcake ball, bat and glove. If bubble-gum-coloured sporting equipment encourages girls to participate in team sports, what’s wrong with a few shiny trophies?
Part of me feels I should be teaching my daughter that playing chess is about stretching your mind. Playing in a tournament is not only about winning (shiny) trophies but about thinking logically, representing your school, being part of a team.
I switch from front crawl to breaststroke and think about my mother. She believes appearances are important, books should absolutely be judged by their covers, and sneakers should not be worn to a wedding. Especially if you’re the bride.
My mother is now living with Alzheimer’s, her hair no longer streaked and coiffed, her cheeks no longer powdered. Mom was no chess champion, but she certainly would never have left the house without a manicure. Can I convince myself that, in a way, taking Liberty to the nail salon is a tribute to my mother?
My swim is done, but I am still awash in doubt. I hoist myself out of the pool and towel off. Racing to the locker room, I bump head first into one of my best girlfriends, a professor of engineering at a prestigious university. She specializes in robotics, specifically vision. She teaches neurosurgeons from Stockholm to Shanghai how computers can monitor improvements in brain function by measuring curve differences in MRIs.
She leans in for a hug. I am dripping wet and grab her hands instead.
Her nails are Easter-egg blue.
I smile, relieved. “Liberty is going to be in a chess tournament tomorrow,” I say, beaming.
Amy Fish lives in Montreal.