Joseph Ocol decided his mission was not just to educate kids. He needed to save them.
As a high school math teacher, Joseph Ocol called attendance every day.
And every day, he would call the name Kareem Mohamad Raji.
Kareem would reply in a smooth, deep voice: “I’m good, Mr. Ocol.”
On April 26, Kareem was leaving school for home. He got in his car, and was struck by a stray bullet. He died immediately.
The next day, Joseph Ocol stood in front of the class. He called attendance. He got to the name Kareem Mohamad Raji.
A lump formed in his throat. He knew he would never again call that name. He would never again hear the words, “I’m good, Mr. Ocol.”
Right then, Joseph Ocol decided his mission was not just to educate kids. He needed to save them. He needed to protect them during the most dangerous part of the day: immediately after school.
So he started a chess club.
The first day of chess club, nobody came to chess club.
Then Joe bought snacks. Everybody came to chess club.
Slowly, something amazing happened.
Year after year, Joe began taking kids from one of the poorest, most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago. He taught them chess. They grew into city champions. Then state champions. Then national champions.
The program grew so successful that the Chicago Public Schools began funding his work to send his kids to tournaments.
That is, until Joe Ocol crossed the Chicago Teachers Union.
They were on strike. But he needed to be with his kids. Especially, because he knew just one day without after-school chess could end one of his students’ lives.
He crossed the picket line.
Joe was ostracized. Then the union pressured the school administrators and Joe’s chess club funding was taken away. The Chicago Teachers Union was fine with winning by sacrificing a few pawns.
But Joe countered their move.
He started paying for everything himself.
A decade later, Joseph Ocol was calling attendance for his 8th grade algebra class.
He called the name Aaliyah Johnson.
Aaliyah was a quiet girl. She was used to being overlooked. The majority of her life had been spent in foster care.
After the first day of school, Joe went to her desk and asked her to join his chess team. She said she couldn’t. She said she’d never played chess.
She said she wasn’t smart enough.
He leaned down and delivered her first chess lesson: “Aaliyah, the most important piece on a chess board is not the king, it’s not the queen and it’s not the rook. It’s the simple pawn. Because the pawn is the only piece that has the potential to transform into any other piece on the board. In you, I see a potential queen.”
She joined the team.
She picked up chess quickly. She started winning scrimmage games after school. The boys on the team were afraid to play her, and Joe knew he had another champion on his hands. He also knew that by playing in ranked tournaments she would have a better chance of attending a better high school and getting money for college.
But there was a problem. Joe had just been diagnosed with cancer. He didn’t have money to take his team, and Aaliyah, to those tournaments.
When Joe told us his story, we told it to our community at the Illinois Policy Institute. To you.
People throughout the state were inspired by his work. They admired his bravery for standing up for his kids against the Chicago Teachers Union. Because of you, we raised $10,000 for Joe’s chess team in 48 hours.
Last May, our donors again raised enough money to send Aaliyah and her classmates to the national junior chess championships in Grapevine, Texas.
While at the tournament, Joseph sent us this picture.
That is Aaliyah with Joseph. The medals around her neck are because she finished second place in nationals.
And that chess win led Aaliyah to be recruited to a selective enrollment high school in Chicago.
When I asked Joe why chess is so important, he said for these kids, “It’s not about winning games. It’s about saving lives. The people who help support our chess program are saving the lives of these kids that nobody believes in.”
Kareem. Or Aaliyah.
You help make the difference. You help Joe take the pawns on his chess team, and teach them they have the power to change into anything they want to be. They can become a rook, a knight, a bishop, a king or a queen.
On behalf of Joe and Aaliyah: thank you!