I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I’m not a particularly big board game fan, I could take them or leave them. And to be frank, nothing annoys me more than when a bunch of “adults” get together and suggest playing a board game, that to me is a sure fire sign I need to leave. Board games should have been retired after the advent of video games, but I do have one board game in particular that makes the 110 Days until Xmas series (Moue Trap doesn’t count because no one played that as a board game—it was more like a poor man’s erector set).
Risk was a board game that in many ways was part of my entire childhood well before our family ever owned the game. You see, I had five older brothers and sisters (and one younger sister), and we all went to the same elementary school in beautiful Baldwin, NY: Milburn, which I found out years later the teachers called St. Milburn because it was almost entirely Irish Catholic. In fact, at any given time over the course of 20 years there was at least one Groom in that elementary school, but more often than not two or three, and at least once four of us (and some families in our neighborhood had kids there for almost 30 years). We pretty much all had the same teachers, and it was kind of strange to have these adults so familiar with every aspect of my family by the time I came along. They openly compared me to my brothers and sisters, and would often call on my siblings during the school day if I was acting up. More than that, they were quite familiar with how dysfunctional my family was, and knew it was next to impossible for any of us to get to school on time—and even when we did they understood just how tough a morning of your hung over father going ape shit over a half a slice of pizza being thrown in the trash could be.
What added to the intimacy of the whole thing was that it was a very small, public school with only one class per grade, and about 20-25 students in each class. It was the world to me for six years, and the progression from grade to grade was always met with apocrypha from my older brothers and sisters. “Mrs. Heller is so tough that she once ate a tack a student tried to put on her seat.” “Mr. Smith will steal and eat your lunch if you’re not careful.” Finally, and most famously, was the sixth grade teacher Mr. George Sobek—the last hurdle before the horror that is junior high school. Sobek—we dropped titles whenever possible—was known for smoking cigars in the classroom at break. His bad toupee was the stuff of legend, and more than one of my siblings claimed to see him without it—which I still don’t believe. He was also known for making students copy pages and pages verbatim out of their history book by hand if they misbehaved, a punishment he termed scribe. Oddly enough, the worst part about scribe was not mindlessly copying pages of text into your notebook—that was easy—it was the fact that if your name was written on the board for scribe you couldn’t play Risk.
That’s right, Sobek’s class was famous for constantly having a Risk game setup at the back of the class, and at least two or three times a week, we would break out into teams, and play Sobek at Risk. He was awesome, he had a nefarious laugh, and would taunt us all with world domination while he attacked our beefed up base in Kamchatka, and we loved it. We took the game dead serious, and playing Risk with Sobek was the closest we got to a family educational heirloom. We all did it, we all remember it fondly, and by the time my older brothers and sisters made it through Milburn, we had a game at home that was constantly being used by some odd combination of us. Turns out, by the time I got to sixth grade I was pretty damn good at Risk, and was Sobek’s greatest foe—-a Patton to his Rommel.
Risk was something I looked forward to playing in sixth grade for years, it was the topic of many conversations in my house, and Sobek in many ways was a constant presence in our minds. We made fun of him ruthlessly, aped his laugh, called him out gleefully on his cigar smoking—which he always denied with a wink—and damned him for scribe. But in the end we all loved Sobek, and while Sobek probably didn’t love us—we weren’t necessarily a well-behaved bunch—he knew how to have fun, and never ceased to make us laugh. Sobek always claimed Risk was about teaching the history of world domination and conquest, which was a loosely veiled excuse that enabled Sobek to break up his day of monotonous content and have some fun. And he did it consistently for well over 20 years, and oddly enough it is about the only thing I remember doing in his class. So in honor of Sobek, where ever he is, I make an exception to the board game rule to honor a teacher from my childhood who was a character in the best sense of that word. And I imagine very few teachers in this day and age have the freedom to be characters in the same way, with the full support of the parents, students, and principal. It was another time, and in my mind a better one.