March 2011 Issue
February 17, 2011

Check it out: The teachers and The Checker Players

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
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Teachers Mary Fessenden and M. Ruth Rath always began the school year at Brockport's Barclay Elementary School by reading a special book — The Checker Players by Alan Venable — to help students learn about differences among people, about cooperating and compromising.

"It set the tone and expectation for looking for the good in others, and for making the year work. When you're a teacher and it's the first day of school, you set standards, goals and hope. You want to plant the seed: 'We're going to make this family work,'" Rath said.

Year after year, they read it to their students, sharing one tattered, worn copy. The Brockport Teachers Association members were often "chasing around to see who had the book," Fessenden said. "It wasn't unusual to have someone come in and steal it off your chalk ledge."

The Checker Players is a story about a tinker and a carpenter, personified by an alligator and a bear, respectively, whose personalities, strengths and weaknesses are revealed in how they play checkers.

The book, which was described as having "rare substance" in a New York Times Book Review, went out of print in 1975. When Fessenden retired, she found out how much she missed her slim tome. She ordered a copy for $45 off a rare book website and brought it back to school, where she volunteers as a reader for elementary students.

One day she wondered where author Alan Venable was. She found him on Facebook and shared the news with Rath. They sent Venable e-mails, telling him how they used his book over the years. They raved to him about the story and told him how useful it was to their students.

And eventually, Venable and his wife used their savings to publish the book again through his mini-press, One Monkey Books.

"Mary and Ruth are balls of fire," Venable said. He was so moved by their persistence and their belief in the book's message that he included a page in the second edition with their photo, along with their ideas on how to use the book in the classroom.

The retired teachers have since been featured in local and school newspapers. They've bought copies and donated them to local schools, to teachers, and even sent a copy to first lady Michelle Obama. "We're just thrilled to pieces to be in the book and have it back on the shelves after 35 years," said Fessenden.

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