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Tungsten, Willamina, Zugzwang


Willamina Tungsten
Age: 14, Grade: 9

School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educators: Ellen Anthony, Olivia Byun

Category: Personal Essay & Memoir


“So, do you like playing chess?” Officer Rodriguez asks me. 

He’s still wearing his uniform, the yellow Police Department City of New York crest on his shoulder only slightly less auspicious than the gun at his hip. The only times the officers at the 13th precinct forgo their uniforms during our community events are when we play basketball together. And even then, there are always a few of them who sit out on the sidelines fully geared, just in case any of us get too violent. Immediate response, alright. Why call in for backup when you can come into the warzone prepared?

I’ve been residing in Euphrasian, a “trauma-enforced” Diagnostic Program within Good Shepherd Services for young females in Foster Care, for over five months. It’s supposed to be therapeutic. My roomates consist of teenagers who have criminal records, gang affiliations, drug abuse problems, issues with aggression, and many other dangerous backgrounds. Out of the 14 residents on our floor, only about a quarter of them are in Euphrasian because they have nowhere else to go, myself included. The rest were placed here by the Advocacy for Children’s Services (ACS) due to their “behavioral problems.” The irony was not lost on me that ACS removed me from my home once it was deemed unsafe, only to place me in this hell-hole. I was put into a lockdown facility that suited most of its residents… and for those of us who actually followed the law? Tough luck.

“Yeah, I guess,” I reply. 

I know he’s just trying to break the ice, but his surprise that I’ve actually touched a chess board before is still patronizing. He thinks I’m one of those people who claim to “know how to play chess” when in fact they’re under the impression it’s legal to move the pawns backward. So he decides to go easy on me. Defense instead of offense. Allows me to make all the power moves. I’m immediately annoyed again.

I flashback to the last time I had to deal with a cop. ACS was investigating a case against my grandmother for molesting me. Since my allegations were of criminal nature, the NYPD got involved. Once they realized I had no proof, as was the situation in most sexual abuse cases, the case closed. No one bothered to inform me of any of this, since ACS rarely prioritizes the opinions of children in their own lives. When I called my detective, he blatantly told me, “I think someone’s putting you up to this.” The man had no courage to say it in front of someone who might write up an Unprofessional Conduct report against him. 

Needless to say, that was the last time I spoke to him. 

After I ran away from home, two other detectives were assigned to my Missing Persons case. They didn’t seem to understand why someone like myself, whose family was well off and employed under the city government, would possibly want to run away. I finally confronted one of them and asked, “So, you don’t believe me?”

“Whether I believe you or not, I don’t think really matters. Don’t you want to be a normal kid? If you continue doing this, you’re never going to have a normal childhood.”

His partner chipped in his two cents; “Children do tend to exaggerate.”

That was the last time I spoke to both of them, too.

Things only got worse from there. Officers who dealt with my case repeatedly asked me in an almost accusatory manner, “So why didn’t you call the police on you grandmother when she did those things to you?” As if the fact that the incidents went undocumented decreased the validity of their occurence. How could they put so much pressure on a 13 year old to do the right thing? How could they act as if it was my fault I chose my family over my safety? Questions of those nature, lacking any sensitivity or humanity, made me shut down on the inside. I slowly began hating cops. It was as if they felt entitled to having an opinion in my abuse. Did they think speaking without any tact made them bright or original? Report after report following ineffectual standards with the same results to show; the ignorant comments shouldn’t have surprised me. 

Officer Rodriquez makes his next move, putting his queen right in the line of my bishop. He pauses, staring straight at the board, refusing to make any eye contact. He just handed his entire game over to me, and is pretending like he didn’t do it on purpose. Does he think that whether or not I win against him will decide if I ever play chess again? Is he trying to avoid humiliating me? Is this his way of giving me hope that I have the capacity to surpass the boundaries of my dismal living conditions, through small victories? Is he really that self-centered, to think his presence will make that much of a difference in my life? 

I’ve been frozen to my seat for a while when he finally looks up at me. I can tell he’s barely holding himself back from blurting out what my next move should be, just in case I missed the gigantic flashing Please Just Win neon sign. He immediately clumped me with the rest of the girls here, assuming that I cut class and burn things for fun. Little does he know I attend one of the most rigorous specialized high schools in the country.

I decide to just go with it. My victory won’t feel as satisfying, but it’s not like I can undo his move. And I would be reckless to pass up an opportunity like this.

“Nice move,” he says. I get the sneaking suspicion he’s speaking down to me, like one would to a five year old who’s crayoned a nondescript figure, but nobody wants to ask what the hell is that?

“You should protect your queen more. Don’t rely on her to make all your moves for you, because once she’s gone, your indecisiveness will make you vulnerable to your opponent. You have 15 other pieces. You can use them, too, ya know.”
Again, that infuriating surprised look.

“Do you play chess often?” he presses.

“I used to, when I was younger and trying to impress my cousins. They always excluded me, so I figured I’d show them I could play even better on my own.”

“Well, you seemed to have done a good job,” he compliments. For a second, I’m not sure if it’s genuine or not.

Doesn’t matter.

“I guess,” I reply.

I don’t bother telling him that by the time I beat all the kids in my class who knew how to play, my cousins had moved on to rummy. It’s none of his business.

Throughout the entire encounter, I’d been staring fixedly at the board, limiting eye contact. My priority when I came downstairs wasn’t to form new bonds, it was to win against a cop. To get back at all those assholes, in whatever way I could. This guy just made it a lot less fulfilling, now that I know I didn’t beat him fair and square. What a waste of time, I think. I get up to leave, but he stops me.

“Wait,” Officer Rodriquez says.

“If you like playing chess, there’s this app. It’s called Play Magnus. You should check it out.”

I really look up at him for the first time. I recognize him. He’s the same cop who told one of the only other law-abiding kids on our floor, “If you become a cop, you can come back to Euphrasian one day and say to the kids ‘Hands up! You’re coming with me!’” Figures it’s the same guy who’s now telling me to use a phone, even though I live in a lockdown facility that has no internet access, and none of us are allowed to use any form of electronic devices. I don’t bother explaining what living in Euphrasian actually means. Someone’ll tell him anyway, I just don’t have it in me to carry on a conversation with him for that long.

But there’s so much hope on his face, like what I have to say might actually matter to him. For a wild second, I imagine whether or not he smiles for the rest of the day hinges on my answer. That I’m important enough to have power over his happiness. 
At the same time, just because Officer Rodriquez comes to most of the community events doesn’t mean he cares about us. Or that he’s trying to “understand the youth.” This is part of his job. He may even be getting a raise. Maybe he just wants a break from sitting in the office? I don’t know. But the fact that he might be emotionally invested in bonding with me… I decide to test it out.

“Yeah, sure,” I say. “I can check it out.”

He smiles.

His smile may have been fake, but it’s the first one I saw since I decided to make eye contact.

He still probably thinks I’m a delinquent, but to be fair he’s also highly misinformed. And his job hasn’t given him the opportunity to see the best in all our residents. It’s not like we give him or his colleagues many positive experiences meant for the scrapbook. The words “lockdown facility” definitely don’t help as far as first impressions go. I can’t expect him to not paint me with the same brush as all the other Euphrasian girls when I’m still comparing him to officers he’s probably never seen before in his life. He may not care about creating bonds, but the fact that he’s even here means that I have the chance to change his misconceptions. These community events are a good place as any to start, at least on my part.

So I decide to nod back.