…Overcoming life’s basic truth: Talent is universal, but the opportunity is not.
In a homeless shelter in Manhattan, an 8-year-old boy is walking to his room, carrying an awkward load in his arms, unfazed by screams from a troubled resident. The boy is a Nigerian refugee with an uncertain future, but he is beaming.
He can’t stop grinning because the awkward load is a huge trophy, almost as big as he is. This homeless third grader has just won his category at the New York State chess championship.
Much of the news of the last week has focused on wealthy families buying access to great universities, either illegally through bribes or legally through donations. There is no question that America is a tilted playing field that gives wealthy children huge advantages.
So we should all grin along with Tanitoluwa Adewumi, the newly crowned chess champion for kindergarten through third grade. Hewent undefeated at the state tournament last weekend, outwitting children from elite private schools with private chess tutors.
What’s even more extraordinary is that Tani, as he is known, learned chess only a bit more than a year ago. His play has skyrocketed month by month, and he now has seven trophies by his bed in the homeless shelter.
“I want to be the youngest grandmaster,” he told me.
Tani’s family fled northern Nigeria in 2017, fearing attacks by Boko Haram terrorists on Christians such as themselves. “I don’t want to lose any loved ones,” his father, Kayode Adewumi, told me.
So Tani, his parents, and his older brother arrived in New York City a bit more than a year ago, and a pastor helped steer them to a homeless shelter. Tani began attending the local elementary school, P.S. 116, which has a part-time chess teacher who taught Tani’s class how to play.
Tani enjoyed the game and prodded his mom, Oluwatoyin Adewumi, to ask if he could join the chess club.
“He is interested in the chess program, which he will like to be participating in,” Mrs. Adewumi, who is working hard to master American English, emailed the club. She explained that she could not pay the fees for the program because the family was living in a shelter.