Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mamma (Black Belt) Bear Rising

Tick by tock, Friday evening became Saturday morning at the dojang, and I was still awake – on purpose. My students and I were about to wrap up another fun-filled lock-in, jammed packed with kids eating pizza, playing martial arts games until their little bodies were drenched in sweat, watching movies, and playing video games. Soon, I’d be sending a mat full of sleepy kids home to their parents. And though I was officially sleep-deprived, I also was very serene.

One by one, parents came to pick up their kids. I took out trash, wiped up sticky punch drippings, and began sweeping up kernels of popcorn strewn in the lobby like dandruff. Before long, only two students – and a chaperone still sleeping on the couch – remained. That’s when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man approaching the school.

Holding my broom with both hands, I walked out to meet him at the threshold of the dojang’s garage door. He was dressed nicely enough: blue jeans and an orange and white striped polo shirt. He wasn’t clean-shaven; but after all, this is Austin. What gave me pause was his rough, leather-tanned arms – with scratches, scars, and fresh scabs – and the pungent stench of alcohol seeping out of every pore of his body and breath.

At first, I was sympathetic. A recovering alcoholic myself, I understand that he has a disease, and a part of me wanted to be of service.

“Can I talk to the owner?” he began.

“That’s me,” pointing my thumb to my chest.

He didn’t look like he believed me.

“Well, my name’s Mark, and I don’t live in Austin. Well, I ... yeah I do live in Austin…” he slurred, about to launch into what I knew would be a long and winding monologue ultimately ending with a plea for money.

I cut to the chase.

“I don’t have any money if that’s what you’re wanting,” I said.

“No, ma’am,” he said politely enough, wavering in his stance. “I’m just looking for work.”

I looked out at the tall grass growing on the side of the school’s lot, and said, “I have some grass that needs cutting.”

“I can do that,” he said, slowly nodding.

“But you’ll need your own equipment,” I replied, remembering that our electronic lawnmower, which I neglected to chain to the fence, had been recently stolen.

“Oh, I don’t have any equipment,” he said gruffly, starting to stagger and stumble.

And that’s when I got a now-familiar gut feeling – one that has proven very accurate in the past – that I needed to get this guy off my property immediately.

“Well, listen, I don’t have any work for you, and we’re a family business,” I said, patting him gently twice on the shoulder. “I’ve got kids in there, and, buddy, you’re drunk, so I think you’d better go.”

His face shot out a squint-eyed leer, his lips pursed together, and I braced for what I knew was coming. I firmly stood my ground at the garage door, still holding my broom.

“I drink every day,” he said, then staggered again. “Every day! And you don’t have to push me!”

I simply nodded my head. I was bracing for a physical confrontation, but I tried to remain calm. I did not back up.

“I could push you right back. You know that?” he said, starting to stagger away. He was leaving, but I was still on edge. As he reached the middle of our parking lot, he turned and said, “You know I’m a black belt, too, and I can stomp on your feet and push you!”

I thought, “Why do drunks always tell me they’re black belts?” It’s not the first time this has happened.

I nodded my head again, trying to reassure myself that a potential crisis had been averted, and watched him as he wobbled down the street to the No. 1 bus stop. I didn’t move my position – or my hands on my broom – until he was out of sight.

I looked down at the broom. It didn’t occur to me until that moment that I had had a weapon in my hands the whole time. I no-doubt would have used it – my training would have kicked in – but it was probably a good thing I didn’t act as if I had a weapon. I didn’t give out that energy. If I had, I may have provoked a fight. Fortunately, all I had to do – and I don’t say “ALL I had to do” lightly – was stand up to him and insist he leave.

As I turned around to go back into the school, I saw one of two little girls left in the dojang sitting on the lobby floor tying her shoes. Our eyes met, and I realized then that she had witnessed the whole thing.

“I’m really sorry you had to see that,” I said gently.

“That’s O.K.” she said, looking down at her shoes.

“No, it’s not O.K.,” I said.

She looked up.

“It’s not O.K. for a drunk person to come to a place like this – or anywhere – with kids around. It’s not O.K. for them to yell at you and scare you.”

We were both quiet for a while.

As I started to sweep again, I added, “That’s why you’re here; so you can learn to stand up to people when they’re being inappropriate and disrespectful. Because it’s not O.K. to treat people that way.”

“Yes, ma’am,” she said, then finished tying her shoes.

A little later, she and her sister sleepily said their thank yous and goodbyes and left with their mom. I kept sweeping, replaying the incident in my mind. Though centered and calm in the moment, I was now feeling ticked off at that guy for invading our space and scaring and potentially scarring an innocent young girl. When the chaperone awoke, I told her about the incident and how I wished my student hadn’t seen it.

She offered a different take: Maybe it was a good thing she saw it. More importantly, maybe she saw it differently than how I thought she saw it.

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Maaaybe,” she said, carefully drawing out her thought, “it was good for her to see an example of a strong woman stand up to someone like that.”

I hadn’t thought of it that way. I told my young student that it was important to stand up to those who act inappropriately, and that’s why we train. So why was I unhappy about the fact that she had see an example of it up close?

I didn’t realize how strong I might have appeared to this little girl. That instead of seeing a scary drunk threatening a fight, she might have seen a strong woman remaining calm, confident – and firm.

As I locked up the school and headed home, I thought about what the chaperone said, and hoped that the morning's events might have planted the seed of empowerment in that little girl's psyche, one that will grow and blossom for the rest of her life.

And with that comforting thought, I could finally go to sleep.


  1. Very powerful story. I hope to reach that level of empowerment someday, too. You did the right thing.

  2. I totally agree with your young chaperone. You did the right thing, and it was courageous. You can't control who walks up to the door, only how you deal with it.

  3. It's amazing that things can happen like that all around us. Fortunately this time you were there to diffuse the situation, but it's scary to think about that happening where someone who is as brave as you, is not there...