Sam’s face turned red. Tears welled up. He had lost to me, at school, at chess, again.  But this time he didn’t leave the table. He didn’t even work to hide his tears.  He shook my hand, turned away briefly, and then set the pieces back up.  He knew I had to go supervise lunch so he walked to the next best chess player in the room and asked him to play.

A year ago Sam joined the school. He was, and still is, an incredible mystery of a boy. When he joined us he was unable to play games where he didn’t win. He was incredibly sensitive – sensitive to the point that I recall him, in that first week at HWA, running off into a woods he did not know (and me having to chase him) because the other boys had “closed” the toboggan hill briefly, to all sledders, to rebuild the jump.  Sam had been so emotionally scarred at his previous school that he thought that the others boys were targeting him.

It appeared, to everyone, that Sam didn’t have any social skills.  He was obviously bright but seemed unable to compromise and extraordinarily self-centered.  But I saw something else – I saw a boy desperately trying to do good in a world where he never seemed to be able to do the right thing.

Our greatest gifts are our greatest weaknesses.  Sam’s gifts were that he cared (too much), that he was extraordinarily gifted (too gifted), and that he wanted to do well (too well).  For his gifts he was shamed by others.  The harder he tried the harder he failed.  The more he failed the more ashamed he became.  It was a downward cycle with almost no hope.

When someone is that ashamed of themselves asking them to care about the feelings of others is utterly ridiculous.  How can one show compassion for someone else when they’re bleeding so profusely?  Eventually, through hard work and our micro-school class size, Sam became able to feel less shame and more confidence.  I’ll never forget the day that Sam was able to complement a classmate.  It was like putting on a shirt you haven’t worn in years.  It was awkward; it was uncomfortable.  But he kept that shirt on and has never looked back.

I won’t go on about the extraordinary achievements Sam has made in a year.  For me it will never be ‘full circle’ but there was a moment, a month ago, where he hosted his former classmates as HWA students taught the primary division from another school.  He stood at the front, confident, and introduced the idea that every one of those children should go home with a “prize” to remember their day.  If you needed to find him he was that student hard at work – prepping to make others’ day special.

That chess match? This time that red face and tears weren’t shame. They were markers of how hard he had tried.  I’ve heard it said that “losing doesn’t hurt.”  It absolutely does and it should when you’ve given your best.  That’s what Sam had done, because that’s what he does day in and day out.  We wouldn’t have it any other way.