Years ago, when I taught at the East Harlem School at Exodus House here in New York City, students were required to have a passion. I don’t mean a generic passion for learning, I mean a passion for some activity, or subject. They were encouraged to get as specific as possible. On a tour of the school, you might hear kids saying things like: I’m a passionate actor, or a passionate reader of young-adult novels; I’m passionate about American politics, or about cross-country running; My passion is my pet guinea pig — I know everything about guinea pigs and hope to become a veterinarian one day.
There were a number of academic reasons for this. For example, if a child experiences excellence in any one area, it raises his self-esteem on the whole. And having ownership over some body of knowledge provides a barometer against which he can measure how well he knows other subjects. Perhaps even more important than academics, though, is that having a passion provides a child a way to connect with others, to know a bit more about themselves, humanity, and the world. It gives them something to talk about, and to share, and through which they can create friendships built on mutual interests.
This social element can take a person places, through clubs, organizations, or meet-ups. Take Citizen Kid Justus, for example. At 14, he’s the youngest African-American chess Master in the history of the game. To qualify as a Master, Justus had to compete in tournaments against chess players of all ages and consistently maintain top scores. As his chess teacher says in the video about Justus below, Justus is in the top 1 percent of all chess players in the country. Because of these skills, Justus has represented the United States in international competitions in Brazil and Greece and also taught chess in South Africa, an experience he says helped make him feel grateful for the benefits of living in the US.
Get one glimpse at this boy’s bright, natural smile and you’ll have no doubt he loves playing chess and feels great about his abilities to succeed in the game. This is a sustaining kind of joy; it’s a love that will carry Justus far in life, I’m sure.
How did Justus discover chess? The same way many kids stumble into a passion: through the encouragement of an engaged parent. Justus’s mother Latisha thought chess sounded like an interesting after-school activity and signed him up for it at age 10. Of course, the skill and zest for the game came from Justus himself, but if she hadn’t given him a nudge — and if he didn’t have such a skillful and enthusiastic teacher — Justus might never have found himself traveling around the world, competing at the highest levels of the game.
You can see what great role models these adults have been for Justus in how he is now teaching young people about chess. Through his passion, he’s learning leadership and teaching skills. Who knows? Some of these kids may end up traveling the world just like he has.
When I was a teacher at the East Harlem School, I had an answer to the “what’s your passion” question at the ready, just like my students: I’m passionate about writing and books, I’d tell them. And look at what I do for a living now!
It’s essential to have something that you’re passionate about, to demonstrate and model for your children the power of a passion. And it’s important, I think, to require that your children have a passion as well. Not just video games, or watching TV, but something that is active and requires they put forth effort to do well. Something that can bring them into contact with others who share the same interest. All Citizen Kids have that spark, that fire in their heart to make a mark in some area, but it had to come from somewhere. Behind every great Citizen Kid is a Citizen Parent — and maybe a Citizen Teacher, too.
So come on, don’t be shy: what’s your passion?