The Boy Who Was Loved Back

Isabel Bearman Bucher
© Copyright 2001 by Isabel Bearman Bucher

"Please," appealed Henrietta Sanchez, principal of Alamosa Elementary School on Albuquerque, New Mexico's Southwest mesa. "Nobody can handle him. Please take him."

It was the fall of 1987. She stood in the spacious hall with Brad Earlewine, the new D-Level special education teacher. They were discussing eight-year-old Roscoe Williams. His aggressive behavior seemed devoid of sensitivity and reason, and yet, he was so likable. The veteran principal just couldn't figure the child out.

Isabel and Shauna.
"There's so much information in that child," she continued. "But he never completes thoughts - maybe two words, then he has to take time to think, and jumps to something else. What is it we're missing here?"

They both stared through the large windows. Outside, brown sloped down into green that wound southward, riding easy with the unhurried Rio Grande.

Roscoe Williams had adopted none of the laid-back attitudes of the area. Hyper-active, severely learning disabled and communication disordered, he couldn't walk down a hall without causing trouble. He was a whirl of motion and syllable; a tiny, black be-spectacled tempest in a teapot; a spindly-legged catastrophe dressed in a superman cape, looking to jump off who knew what. There was talk about a behavior disorder condition to add to the baggage he was already carrying.

A few weeks later, with necessary red tape and paperwork rushed to completion, Roscoe Williams was placed in Brad Earlewine's class. The minute the pair looked at each other, there was a certain magic, like two elements combining, both stimulating and challenging each other. The rest of the school personnel breathed a sigh of relief.

Degreed in Special Ed. At Denver's Regis College, single, caring and gentle, Earlewine was a renegade to tradition, a maverick who'd even trained for the priesthood for a while. He had a way with kids, was always looking for a way to get inside their heads, trying to find a key, something, anything to make a difference. However, in his nineteen years of experience, he'd never taught this level before, and people warned him how hopeless a task it was.

Name it. The D's had it. The fourth level down from regular education students, some were orphans, some sexually abused. Some were full or rage, deep sorrow, possessing every kind of handicap, even genius, imprisoned by mixed-up neurology. They stumbled through life, never ending stories of want, loaded down with tremendous needs, human pincushions stuck with sour luck and albatross labels. Society and a their worried parents had good intentions and a cupboard full of names - BD, CD, LD, ADD, EMH - behavior disordered, communication disordered, learning disabled, attention deficit disordered, educationally mentally handicapped. All people have learning disabilities to some degree, but quantity tells the D-tale. Desperate for attention, they often masked tremendous needs in constant negative behaviors, continually exhausting a regular world, sometimes becoming annoying cast-offs, wreckage to be simply endured. Some were silent and withdrawn.

Earlewine called his kids the "Fragile D's." Branded "trainables," often the butt of cruel jokes on school playgrounds, they endured names like "retardos."

"We just don't stand for that," he told his kids. "Face up to them! Be brave! Don't take it!"

But they took it.

Earlewine saw that rather than overcoming the detested labels, they seems resigned to them. His fragile, needy barrio eight: Nino, Gina, Carlos, Larry, Becky, Jorge, Jesus and Roscoe would spend three years together, a close family, bound in mind and heart. He prayed for a way to help them find their worth - pull off labels. But how?

Earlewine's 25 x 25 portable classroom barrack was a cheery place, full of centers for learning. He taught the regular three R's, placing each child on an individualized program of studies, drawing them together for collective story weaving, singing, sharing and art. He knew that Fragiles often excelled in activities like origami. With a few basic instructions, effortlessly, almost without conscious thought, Roscoe began creating complex designs by manipulating distance, depths, curves and angles into uniquely beautiful creations. A chess expert since his youth, Earlewine began to reason that origami was like chess, only pieces and moves replaced complex turns and folding. .

"Unorthodox? Too tough for them? " He wondered. " Why not? It's worth a shot."

The next day, he brought a child's book of chess to class and began reading the fairytale-like myths that explained basics. Within a weeks, the Fragiles, especially Roscoe, gobbled up chess basics. Earlewine bought four boards, setting them up with the clear understanding that only after school work was done, could chess begin. Roscoe begged for a set to take home, so Earlewine traded duty, ran out on his lunch hour and bought a fifth set from his limited funds. Home the tiny whirlwind pedaled, chessboard tightly clutched under his arm.

Anita Williams, Roscoe's mother was a worrier. Alone, with three children to feed and clothe, she worried about rent and bills and plenty more. But mostly, she worried about Roscoe, and how the world was going to treat her eldest. She well knew he was slow. How glad she was that day because he's found such an interest. Just months before, she couldn't even get him to sit still long enough to learn checkers. But this, the ancient, complex Six Century, East Indian Game of Kings, playing field of the stoic gifteds, freed Roscoe's long imprisoned spatial and logical genius.

From that point on, he lived and breathed chess, mastering more and more complex moves almost without any apparent effort, sparking the rest of his classmates.

"See, Roscoe," coached Earlewine, setting up the chess pieces into "the Dragon," an old 60's Bobby Fisher technique he'd learned as a child. "The pieces look like an old fire spitter on the chessboard, with four feet, a tail and eye. It looks so harmless," he continued. "Come out from the eye. Use your knight. Jump in! Jump out! Attack! But, shhh." he whispered. "Be quiet about it. Got it?"


He got it all right. He learned that while control of the center of the board was crucial, there was no need to occupy it. Center occupants became targets. The leaping, darting knight could win the game from the sidelines by using creative, unexpected moves. It was freedom. Surprise. Shock. Power. Roscoe, the knight, emerged.

"See?" Earlewine instructed. " 'Pawn." It has the same name root as 'pioneer.' You be a pioneer. Create your own 'gambit, 'trick.' Offer them a tiny, delicious morsel. See if they'll take it. When they do ... They're dead!"

"Uh-huh." Roscoe repeated.

The Fragiles all loved the idea that the faithful and lowly soldier pawns could win the game and snickered at the idea of a soldier becoming a queen.

"There are women soldiers!" hooted Gina, with new found courage that surprised the group.

Earlewine taught that eight faithful pawns, like his Fragiles, could resemble one living snake, whipping, growing and weaving silently over the board. He taught how to be the snake, but also how to play against it, by telling Kipling's tale of the brave, courageous "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," a lonely little mongoose of India, who saved his adopted human family from two mated cobras living in their garden.

"Nag, the hooded cobra death can bite you," warned Earlewine. "Then you've got fifteen minutes to live. You be death from the board outpost. Hassle the snake. But, think before you bite the head. Got it?"


Earlewine taught how to gnaw the snake in two, and then eat all the little snakes.

The same brilliant, creative imagination that had prevailed in origami took over again in this boy's game. Roscoe was a bold, tactical player. Earlewine realized that he was thinking five to seven moves ahead after only a few weeks of instruction. His mind saw without eyes. He'd been taught a simple tune or two, and he was beginning to create a symphony.

In class, growing technique got linked to the three R's. Math grew from the 64 black and white squares and 16 playing pieces. Writing skills centered around chess vocabulary. Spontaneous, made-up stories, so crucial to the halting speech of the Fragile Eight tumbled out like wordy brooks. Chess-theme art and designs, blazing with color taught measurement.

By now, the Fragiles all had home sets and began coming before school for instruction. They gave up recesses, stayed in at lunch. No more was Roscoe seen making strafe attacks in the girls' bathrooms. The superman cape got folded into a chair pillow. It was hard to believe, but the boy was completely changed. He was acquiring a sense of responsibility, becoming popular.

The Fragile Eight were changed too. They were absorbed, more confident, purposeful, even proud. Soon, other kids in regular classes wanted to learn, so Earlewine started a supply-your-own-board chess club. More often than not, he supplied. The club began meeting at 7 A.M. in a corner of the cafeteria, because the barrack room was soon too small to house the growing number of players. Early morning found almost fifty concentrating, earnest kids, kindergarten to fifth grade, playing chess. Fragiles and regulars were oblivious to the 7:30 A.M. din of morning breakfasters, who watched over their shoulders.

Roscoe wiped out all comers, along with handfuls of warm, buttered bread, tucked away for him by cafeteria Manager, Dori Lovato, "Nanna" to Roscoe.

"Here comes numero uno," she'd sing-song from the kitchen. He'd flash a big smile, turn around once and do a little two-step down the aisle. He earned his way by helping her put milk on the trays. Over the chessboard, he traded hugs and two-steps for tactics. People oriented, he'd study the player, instinctively understanding the kind of move strategies the person preferred. He'd get right inside the opponent's head, think like them and then ... he's lay just the right gambit, many moves ahead, and sucker them right on in.

Roscoe started studying his teacher's moves at home, and at one point beat Earlewine five times in a row.

"I've got to constantly change," the teacher told colleagues. "He's so quick! When he hones in on a pattern, my strategy and figures out how I think, forget it. It's over."

Roscoe knew the moves his opponent preferred before they even knew them. It was hard to believe he couldn't remember spelling and stumbled over reading, but he could think chess brilliantly, now ten to twelve moves ahead and expanding.

Earlewine started a team choosing from the membership ranks. With around thirteen members, it was evenly divided between Fragile D's and others. Roscoe was team captain. Earlewine challenged the "high school only clause," won, enrolled them in the Albuquerque Public School Chess League, and small South Valley tournaments. Friendly rivalries among themselves built confidence and improved their games. The Fragiles began racking up wins.

Roscoe and Mario Diaz, a regular second grader who'd recently joined the team, were beating high school players in the league. Their members found it hard to believe that grade schoolers could play, let alone win!

Reading about the elementary school kids who beat Del Norte High, John Adams Junior High invited Roscoe for a simultaneous exhibition. He wiped out ten players, and their coach in less than 45 minutes.

The Fragiles' fame was spreading through word of mouth and news articles. In March of 88, Earlewine entered the team in the state elementary chess tournament in Los Alamos, alias "Brain City." The mountaintop town, full of Ph.D.'s, developed the atom bomb in the 40's and had smarter than smart, serious, chess playing kids. An article extolling Roscoe's abilities preceded them as they walked into the tournament.

In the final round, Roscoe faced the Los Alamos champ. Then, his behavior disorder got the better of him. He impulsively touched a piece and had to move it, although he'd already chosen another move that would have won the game. He came in second, learning a dear and valuable lesson that he would never forget. The team took a fourth.

While waiting, Earlewine picked up a flyer announcing the National Chess Championships to be held in Albuquerque in April, just over a month away.

"We're going to nationals," he said decisively to a silent Roscoe, on the drive home.

The big tournament would attract around 800 kids from 90 school, elementary through high school, from all over the US.

Earlewine tried to teach Roscoe a repertoire of fifteen to twenty opening moves, with all the variations. While Roscoe did learn and memorize three of four, that's as far as it went. He'd sneak sheepishly into his own creative style. Earlewine borrowed some chess software, and Roscoe began by beating the computer.

The days came and went, boiling with excitement. The Fragiles met at each other's houses to keep their games fresh. Earlewine registered eight for nationals, only to find out that the entry fee would be $20.00 per kid, plus other expenses. He went to Mrs. Sanchez. She referred him to parents, Marie Gallegos and Ben Felix, who jumped right in. Kids searched for, smashed and sold discarded aluminum cans. They cleaned vacant lots. Parents donated cakes, food and handicrafts for raffles. They presented a convincing case to South Valley businesses and community leaders, who joined in the support. Marie hand embroidered their names on Alamosa Elementary T-shirts.

To save a twenty mile drive for the big weekend, the club had enough money to rent a cheap little motel room near the tournament site. Equipped with sleeping bags - some had never been on the inside of a motel room before - the kids were ready to play chess for three days, three rounds a day, with each round lasting three to four hours. Parents would bring all the food.

The morning of the first matches, Earlewine shepherded his timid team through the bustling and elegant hotel lobby towards the assignment board. Swaggering armies of kids, colorfully and richly dressed, sported confidence that matched snappy chess logos on blazer pockets, suit ties and jaunty caps.

Earlewine bid his team goodbye and began the long hours of waiting. By the end of the day, Roscoe had won all but one of his matches, advancing to higher levels, with harder, older opponents for the next day. The team had won, too. That night surrounded by anxious enchilada-pushing parents, they told their stories. Earlewine, now a nervous, biddy hen, was clucking last minute advice.

The second day, stuffed with an all-you-can-eat breakfast, bought by Earlewine, Roscoe went on to win again. The third afternoon, the teacher watched his student climb atop a telephone book that had been placed on the seat of a high-back chair. His tiny face appeared even smaller next to the large board. His opponent, twice his age and three times as big, was wearing a cap with a logo on it. His matching buddies were hanging around, sure of a quick kill.

Roscoe opened with the first series of moves he's memorized, but then, he became aggressive, moving by instinct, acting as if he had years of chess playing behind him, not a mere seven months. His moves were bold, risky; he was jumping in for the strikes from the board outposts, like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.

"You can't do that!" Earlewine screeched mentally. "Back off! That guy's not going to fall for that! A knight sacrifice! Good Everlasting God!"

Roscoe didn't back off, the "Cap" did, because he thought Roscoe knew what he was doing. The outrageous moves so undid him, a half hour later, rattled and confused, the opponent overplayed his hand and began to strike too quickly, thinking that Roscoe's wild moves had some devious plan behind them. He was trapped by years of textbook chess study. He threatened, while his buddies made jokes; but, his pawns had advanced too far, and couldn't turn back. They were waiting like little, delicious pluckible apples.

Roscoe kept unbalancing them, hassling and nipping the snake, jumping in and jumping out, harvesting apples. And finally, two hours later, he paralyzed the snake. Then, he bit it in two ... Checkmate.

"He won! shrieked Earlewine.

Roscoe was all calm smiles, as he climbed down off his telephone book. After 25 hours and seven rounds of play, he'd won four out of five contests, playing against mostly high school students. The "Cap" took it off, wiped his brow, and reached out a large hand that engulfed Roscoe's tiny black one. The buddies shook their heads.

On the way to eat, they stopped in front of the big tally board. With 912 names listed, nobody in the third grade was as high as Roscoe. He'd won the national title! The team took third place in the junior varsity competition, beating high school players.

For the night's award ceremony, Earlewine got a date; Roscoe went home to be scrubbed and shined by his mother. Surrounded by parents and their teacher, the Fragile's heard ...

"And, the best third grade player in the nation ... Roscoe Williams!"

The huge audience erupted into a frenzy when Roscoe started dancing down the isle, just like he was going to Nanna Dori. Suddenly, he stopped, drew himself up to his most tall 48 inches, squared off his shoulders, stuck out his tiny, determined chin and walked slowly with uncommon dignity, to claim his huge trophy. It was a moment of ecstasy. Everyone was so proud. The Fragiles went next. Earlewine choked back tears.

"What gifted class is he from? The team? " questioned reporters. "What academy?"

"He and they are my D-level Special Education class," answered Earlewine quietly. "Alamosa Elementary in the South Valley."

"What? You gotta be kidding!" the newsman returned. "So, what are they? Savants? Rainman or what?"

"Nope," answered Earlewine, somewhat annoyed by the searching questions. " Roscoe Williams and most of the team are my third grade students."

From that time on, the team, and especially Roscoe, were celebrities. The Fragile Eight changed. Gina and Jesus acquired courage. Shy Carlos walked tall like Roscoe, full of intense pride. Tiger macho Nino, and gang leader Jorge learned patience, logic and strategy. Orphaned, deeply lonely Larry, got the family he'd always longed for, and a best friend in Roscoe. Becky, whose heart was never in it when she played chess, went along with the group, and learned plenty because of it.

The principal's office began to look like a metal forest. Trophies were everywhere, even flowing out the door. Roscoe had a lucrative little business going now, tutoring high school students in chess, for a dollar an hour. Life was good. Earlewine and his Fragiles, who were not so fragile anymore, started their second year together.

February 11, 1989 dawned sunny, after many days of snow and rain. Roscoe begged for permission to go with Larry and deliver candy for the chess club, relieved to be able to finally get out doors.

You be home in as hour," called Anita from the house.

"Un-huh, returned Roscoe, pedaling down the street, starchy with vigor and duty. At the corner of 64th and Gonzales Road S.W., Roscoe looked laughingly back at his friend, and went through the stop sign. There was a screech of brakes and a horrible thud. Roscoe hit the side of an automobile, rolled over the hood, was pitched into the air and thrown thirty feet, striking the median curb with the right side of his head. He lay unconscious. An emergency medical trained jogger rushed over, gave first aid and waited for the 911 Rescue to arrive. A friend pounded on Anita's door, and breathlessly rasped out, "Come quick! Roscoe had a terrible accident!"

Terrified of what she might find, Anita ran to the scene, took one look, went screaming crazy and had to be restrained. The ambulance came. Roscoe was taken to the University of New Mexico Hospital. He was in a coma, his eyes were deviated to the right, and there were numerous fractured teeth, abrasions and cuts. He had a closed head injury that was swelling by the right eye.

Earlewine was working in his classroom when Gina and Carlos tore through the barrack door.

"Oh, Mr. Earlewine!" they shouted. "They took Roscoe to the funeral home!"

"Maybe he's alive. We don't know."

Together, they raced to the scene, and stopped part way, letting their teacher walk alone to the middle of the road. He paced the thirty feet to the center median, and stood there in numb shock, trying to make some sense out of what had happened. There was a big spot of blood, pieces of contorted bike and something black. He reached down for the object and got sick to his stomach. It was the twisted remains of Roscoe's glasses.

Earlewine ran to his car and rushed to the hospital. A volunteer stated that Roscoe was in the emergency room, near death, and no one but family could be with him.

A week later, Earlewine finally got his first chance to see him. It was a terrible shock. Roscoe's face was unrecognizable. Reports said that if he did live, he'd probably lose his right eye, maybe both. There was talk of brain damage, and injuries so great, he'd spend the rest of his life, a vegetable, in a coma.

Some thought it would be better if he died.

Anita, relatives and Earlewine took round-the-clock shifts, so Roscoe wouldn't be alone. The teacher had to keep telling himself over and over, that deep down, Roscoe was in there, but the boy was so deformed, so battered, so damaged, Earlewine found that he had to be in a constant state of prayer.

As the days went on, unable to bear the grief alone, he joined the family.

"He's not gone yet," somebody would always say. "He's in there, somewhere. I know it.".

Many times, Earlewine joined in the ancient practice of the laying-on of hands, by adding his white to a dozen black ones, touching the bandaged lump under the cover. Often, they put them together, amidst the jungle of tubes, bottles and machines, and prayed for healing. Beloved old hymns rose and floated softly into the beautiful southwest spring evenings.

The local newspapers, TV and radio carried daily updates and Roscoe's pictures were up everywhere, so people wouldn't forget to keep pulling for him.

Earlewine and the Fragiles stumbled on. The kids turned the accident scene into a sort-of shrine, meeting daily to share a quiet moment together on the median.

By February 22, 1989, Roscoe was admitted to the Carrie Tingley Hospital for Crippled Children, unable to move or talk. He was still being tube fed. His mental functioning level was zero to five months. It looked as if he was going to keep his eyes, but mouth sutures, and fractured teeth put feeding issues in question. His right side was bad.

In a private corner of the barrack, Earlewine set up a tape recording station, where the Fragiles could make daily personal messages to their friend. The hospital played them 24 hours along with video tapes of past chess games.

Dori brought him a little statue of Jesus that she thought looked like a chess piece. She prayed maybe he'd want to move it. But he just lay there with his eyes closed. Nino snuck in one night, but couldn't talk to anybody about what he saw.

One day, Earlewine brought a chessboard and set it up. By now, Roscoe's eyes were open, without any recognition, spark, or life.

"Okay Buddy," the teacher began. "When I hold my hand over a piece, and you see a move you want to make, blink your eyes."

Earlewine touched pieces, pointing to all the possible moves, one at a time, looking up at Roscoe, and waiting a bit, each time. On the last choice, he detected the barest twitch.

"He's awake!" He ran hollering into the hall. "He blinked!"

The nurse came running. He started again.

"Roscoe. Blink your eyes, " he requested, doing it himself.

There was a deathless pause.

"Come on Buddy. Do it again."

Again, he saw the barest flicker.

"See! I told you!" he trumpeted.

Earlewine touched and pointed, watching carefully for the flicker. When it came, he moved the piece.

"A lot of people think they see movement, when there isn't any," the nurse said kindly.

She hadn't seen what he had seen, and further, she didn't play chess, so how could she understand he'd blinked for the best move?

"Do I want him to be well so much, that I'm seeing things?" Earlewine agonized, unable to sleep again.

All the next week, after school, he played the point and blink game, and was sure that Roscoe was responding, but he kept quiet. On the following Tuesday, Roscoe opened his mouth and said "uh-huh" to the nurse. He had awakened.

Confused and disoriented, without memory, he didn't know who he was, and he didn't recognize anyone. He's fade in for ten minutes, then out for ten, sleeping a great deal. He tried to talk, and progressed to being fed, but the teeth were still a problem. It was hard on Earlewine to keep attempting games. He was afraid to touch him, or breathe near him, terrified he'd shatter somehow. While some movement was returning, his hands operated like spastic claws, pointing to chess pieces for Earlewine to move. Helpless, still connected to tubes, he had to be toileted, turned, massaged, but Earlewine felt anyone could have come in there and Roscoe would have given them a good game. The teacher was positive that he'd been playing chess mentally in the coma, and even more positive that it had brought him back. Some hospital personnel thought Earlewine was insensitive to Roscoe's terribly serious condition. They thought that all the teacher wanted was a chess champion instead of a little boy.

His continuing chess ability was a surprise to chess-playing staff, who finally realized it was pretty remarkable that while he couldn't find the bathroom, or his own room, he could beat hospital personnel.

Peeping out, a bit at a time, between long sleeps, Roscoe progressed to sitting and finally walking, but his right side was severely crippled. Physical therapy was long and painfully difficult, so, chess was used it as a reward. His speech and language lagged behind. He could sometimes write numbers to ten, spell his name and read simple sentences.

On a warm day at the end of March, he went home to his mother, his brother and sister, thinking and behaving like a two-and-a-half - year- old child. He knew his family, some people, and all the presents he'd gotten in the hospital, but he's ask his mother for permission to use the clothes, toys and bed, belonging to the other "boy". He had to be watched constantly,.

Roscoe began homebound school for the 88-89 school year, and daily therapy back at Tingley, while Earlewine and the Fragiles made daily visits. The team went to the Tucson nationals, vowing to win for Roscoe, whom they took along in their hearts. They brought home eight trophies which were added to the newly built, now overflowing Alamosa trophy case.

In the fall of 89, the Albuquerque Public Schools Special Education Department held a meeting. They felt that the best thing to do was to enroll Roscoe in either a brain injured class, or place him twenty miles away, in a training school for the mentally handicapped.

"That's not what he needs!" exploded Earlewine, seconded by Anita. "Put him back with us. Put him back where he is loved, not in some strange place."

The teacher was given two months to make a difference. He took the deal, putting his job one the line.

His mother brought him daily for lunch, increasing bit by bit, until he spent half, then finally a full day with his class. The old Roscoe wasn't there, though. This Roscoe was serious, quiet, slower; his smile was missing. He didn't remember the accident, or his recovery. He's forgotten the names of things and people, but the kids would patiently tell him over and over again. He did remember, very vaguely, playing chess in a shadowy place. That's when Earlewine knew he'd been right about the chess playing in the coma.

The kids cut his food, and sometimes fed him lunch. Nino and the boys took him to the bathroom, to the playground, helped him to hop, skip and jump again, unknowingly re-teaching skills so important for his limping right side. They played chess and ball, and chase, or they hung around together, arms entwined. Gina read to him, day after day, teaching, helping, trying so sincerely to get him to remember words, phrases, anything. Earlewine tried old tempters like origami and myth making, but, it was like working with a stranger.

The pressure was building for the teacher to make it happen for the boy. Earlewine told the Fragiles that they had to believe their "real" Roscoe was in there and, with their help, he would return. The words weren't really necessary, because every one of them surrounded their friend with such patient compassion and such unending tenderness and understanding that, one day . . . there was a spark in his eyes, a flash of memory.

"You remembered!" they cheered.

"Uh-huh," he chuckled.

And, the remembering continued. Things began to flood back in torrents. Through the days, their old Roscoe would come back for longer and longer periods, along with the sparkle and the two-step. And, anytime he needed them, the kids were always there to supply missing pieces. Through it all, the little group of barrio kids, and their very special teacher, never broke the circle of kind and gentle caring, of praise and celebration. They simply willed him, loved him back to life.

That spring of 1990, the Fragiles, including Roscoe, who by then was 95% back, went to the Kansas City high school nationals, a chess tournament that attracted 1000 players. The boy who was loved back won a gold medal, and placed tenth in the nation.

Roscoe, who graduated from highschool, and Earlewine see each other often. Roscoe volunteers, helping kids where and when he can. They still play chess.

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