“You missed! It’s my turn,” says Brandon, gushing with excitement. He blurts out F-4, and flashes his eyes at me to hurry my response. I locate the coordinates on my board – he has missed again. “It’s a miss,” I tell him with a smile. The third grader throws his head back and groans. On my blue plastic sea occupied by white pegs and grey ships, a lone red peg stands on the deck of a vessel. On Brandon’s factitious waters, however, a row of red pegs is surrounded by several white pegs. According to the rules of the game, I am winning. But actually, I am losing.
Several months have passed since I first met Brandon. When I signed up to volunteer as a tutor for the Learning Disabilities Association, I thought I would be tested by a child with an obvious disability. To my surprise, the organization paired me with a boy who – besides being good-humoured and tractable – seemed normal. Sure, he had trouble with literacy, but where is the line drawn between a learning difficulty and learning disability? Nevertheless, I went along with it – they must know what they are doing. The program coordinator assigned me to Brandon because of our common interest in drawing. Turns out, it was my familiarity with cartoons and video games like Sonic and Hedgehog that broke the ice. It’s baffling that the things I grew up with are still popular with today’s kids. We really are living in a “culture of nostalgia,” as New York critic Fran Lebowitz had observed.
I announce B-2. “Aw, hit!” says Brandon. He recollects himself. With a strained expression, he inspects his version of my board as if my ships could materialize before his eyes. Come on, Brandon, try C-3. He chooses G-8, instead. I pinpoint the location. It’s another miss, far from where he had already struck me at C-2. He takes the news harder than the last time. Despite his frustration, I can tell he is enjoying every moment of this. It’s a good thing, too, since this game of Battleship is supposed to be a reward for his hard work. But has he improved since I started working with him? It’s hard to tell. I had never tutored before, and now, with minimal training, I feel partly responsible for getting this kid to university.
It is my turn to make a move. What is my strategy? I have none. In fact, I have no idea what I am doing. Brandon stares at me with expectation. My instincts are all I have.
With my years of experience over his, certainly, this is an unfair match. Still, something keeps me from making another false move to give Brandon more chances. He needs to see how this game is meant to be played. Besides, it’s not always about the win. When you get over both winning and losing, you free yourself from the constraints of desire and fear, and then all possibilities become available. I call out B-3. “No!” yells Brandon. Sorry bud, you will have to learn the hard way. He delays his decision… E-7. At last, a lucky hit. Brandon lets out a cry of victory. Unfortunately, his celebration is short-lived. I sink him on the next move.
But like a steely marine, he is not backing down. Having witnessed three of his ships sink, he finally catches on. He calls E-6, and another red peg joins E-7. Two more moves later, he finally does it – he has sunk my battleship. Brandon wriggles with glee and lets out a laugh that drowns out the toddlers in the library. The commotion causes several heads to turn. By the checkout desk now appears Brandon’s mother, Arlene, waiting patiently for us to finish. Our time draws to a close. In a few swift moves, I put an end to the game. Our marks of victory and defeat leave the board, returning to their quarters. Everything falls back to zero. Leaving it all behind, the only thing we can take with us is the lesson of our trial.
You missed! It’s my turn, says Brandon, gushing with excitement. He blurts out F-4, and flashes his eyes at me to hurry my response. I locate the coordinates on my board – he has struck me again. It’s a hit, I tell him with a smile. The third grader throws his arms up and cheers. On my blue plastic sea occupied by white pegs and grey ships, four red pegs stand on the deck of a vessel. On Brandon’s factitious waters, however, a lone red peg stands among several white ones. According to the rules of the game, I am losing. But actually, I am winning.