Andrew Mitchell sat calmly, waiting at the base of the door closed to him and everyone else in the world. He knew the routine. Anger wouldn't work. Neither would demands. None of the expected reactions would open that door. And, if he or anyone else forced it open, another would close to them.
So Mitchell waited. And he listened.
Slowly, the child on the other side began to communicate. Hesitantly and with more than a little apprehension, the child began to let Mitchell in. As the door moved inch by inch, the boy opened his life little by little to the man determined to help him.
Mitchell is no stranger to working with challenging children. In both his professional and personal lives, he spends his days working with kids struggling with problems that go beyond the ability of their families to resolve. The Maryland native has spent his adult life helping children in troubled homes learn to thrive despite the unique challenges they face in the world around them.
That doesn't mean every day is easy. This particular day, with this particular child walled off behind just a few inches of wood—but emotionally behind so much more than a simple door—was more difficult than the rest, even for a trained clinical mentor.
Still, Mitchell was patient as he spoke to his charge on the other side. Eventually, he was allowed into the room and cautiously attempted to forge a connection. As he did, he took in the room around him, a typical kid's room with not much to make it stand out. As he tried to converse with the troubled youth, it became increasingly clear that he wasn't making much progress. Despite his best efforts, Mitchell was only met with clipped, noncommittal responses and head nods.
So he tried a different tactic.
"I saw some Magic boxes on the side of his room—I knew what it was from back when I played in middle school—so I tried bringing that up," Mitchell recalled. "It was like someone flipped a switch."
In just a few moments, gone was the reclusive and obstinate kid who wasn't interested in the adults around him. In his place sat a child ecstatic about the prospect of sharing one of the few bright spots in his life with someone.
"His face just lit up," Mitchell said. "And we played for hours that day. He taught me how to play again, and as he whipped me I was able to get to know him. He began to see me as someone who he could trust to help him.
"That was when I knew I had found something."
For both teen and adult, that day was a turning point. The child suddenly found himself with a reason to work toward the behavior goals that had been set for him. Accomplishing those goals was met with new decks or opportunities to play. It provided a tangible reward for meeting benchmarks and moving forward with his life. He worked hard to meet those goals and today has conquered many of the challenges he faced.
For Mitchell, it was a revelation. Not only did the experience help push him back into Magic personally, it became a useful tool in his work. Teaching kids to play the game did more than give them something to work toward; it helped them to develop social skills that they struggled with in their outside lives.
The approach has worked wonders. It was such a hit that Mitchell teamed up with educator and friend Scott Swick to create Sword and Stone Tutors, and together they use Magic to help children find both personal and academic success. Swick credits Magic as unique in its ability to help developing minds come to terms with the world around them.
"I've worked with kids on varying levels of the autism spectrum, and Magic does incredible things for them," he explained. "A lot of the challenges they face are in learning how to appropriately respond to the world around them—so many times they're trying to figure out the right response to a stimulus and they aren't able to experience the moment in the same way other kids do. That's a huge stress for them socially, and makes it difficult to learn how to fit in.
"Magic is so good for these kids because it has a sort of script. Each turn of each game they know what is expected, from introducing themselves at the beginning to saying 'good game' and shaking hands at the end. It allows them to put into practice the things they've learned socially in a way that no classroom setting can. Past that, it teaches them life skills, from being humble in victory to gracious in defeat. Take all that as well as the basic math and reading that comes with playing Magic, and you have something that really makes a difference in their lives."
It's not just Magic that's making a difference; credit must be given to Mitchell and Swick, who have gone above and beyond helping their charges during their work hours. They have formed a community from within their former and current pupils, and now Friday afternoons at the local gaming store are filled with those kids, who have found a group of friends they would have otherwise never met.
Walk into Dream Wizards in Rockville, Maryland, on a Friday night, and you won't see a bunch of kids who have faced unique trials that the average teenager hasn't. You won't see a group of kids who have struggled with a host of nightmarish scenarios, from broken homes to learning deficits to leukemia.
All you'll see is a group of kids doing exactly what every player does—enjoying playing the game with their friends. You'll see them vie over Commander games and strategize over how to best approach Standard. You'll see silly arguments and wacky decks and laughs and high fives. You'll see exactly how much good Magic can do for someone's life.
And just in the background, keeping a proud watch, you'll see the two men who made it possible.