Another one of my boys grew last week. Not in inches, but in indomitable and immeasurable spirit.
As chief instructor of a small martial arts school, it’s my job to keep everyone who enters the school mindful of our true goal: building better character everyday. Some come in thinking they’ll learn to kick and punch. They do. Others come in thinking they’ll learn to break boards. They do. But most don’t come in thinking that they’ll learn to be strong, honest, responsible, respectful, and compassionate people. But they do.
In my 10 years as an instructor, teaching character hasn’t been easy. Some kids are “teacher pleasers” – never failing to listen, follow directions, try their best, and do the right thing. Others are rebellious. Still others simply have fierce dragons – fiery emotions that they struggle to control.
I’ve demoted students – taken stripes away, bumped them down a belt (sometimes more) – for a variety of “crimes against character.” The first time I demoted a student, I thought it would break my heart. Or his. But neither happened, and today that kid is a second-degree black belt and sophomore at Yale University. (He also towers over me, which I think is quite unfair.)
Today both of us are stronger and better people. Yet teaching – and learning – important character lessons never gets any easier.
As much as I adhere to the Tony DiCicco “Catch Them Being Good” positive coaching philosophy, sometimes I have to be – apologies for the harsh language – a hard ass.
Like last week.
Little Z, all of 7 years old, was sitting on a metal folding chair in my office, his short legs dangling, not even long enough to touch the blue carpet. Tears welled up in his eyes. A sweet-hearted, hardworking yellow belt, Z was two weeks away from promoting to orange belt. But earlier in the day, he had a little problem with self-control. He let anger get the worst of him.
That morning, Z was at a neighborhood park playing a game with another kid when things turned ugly. Z got mad because the kid was physically bullying him, and not playing the game fairly. Z pushed the boy and then tried to hit him in the face. (Z missed, thank goodness.) When Z’s mother told him to apologize to the boy, he refused, and then threw a verbal fit.
Now, just a few hours later, Z was sitting in my office at the martial arts school, head hanging low and looking quite uncomfortable. Fresh from his sparring class, Z’s tussled, sweaty bangs hung above his big brown eyes. He was almost too adorable to punish. But I’ve learned that letting kids off lightly doesn’t do them any favors.
“Do you know why you’re here?” I asked him.
“Yes, ma’am,” he quietly and gently replied.
I asked Z to tell me what happened, and I was proud that his story matched the one his mother just told me. (Chalk up one point for honesty!)
I held Z’s dirty yellow belt in my hands.
“Z, you understand that we only use Taekwondo to protect ourselves and our families, right? Only when our lives are in danger?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Tears welled up in both eyes, and a single one emerged and then rolled a slow, curving path down his left cheek. It stopped at his chin and hung there, waiting – just like Z was waiting with me now.
“Now, the way I see it, you made three really bad choices today,” I continued. “In Taekwondo, one of the five tenets is self-control, and today you lost that.”
He nodded sadly. The tear finally dropped to the lap of his white dobok pants.
“You tried to strike someone in anger. And that’s wrong. You know that, right?”
His big, brown, sad-puppy dog eyes looked straight into mine, and I had to pray for strength.
I took his belt in my left hand as I slid open my desk drawer and grabbed a pair of scissors. “You’re lucky your punch missed. You’re lucky you didn’t hurt that young man. But because you tried to hit him in anger, that’s one,” I said as I snipped off one of two orange stripes from his yellow belt.
I tore off the strip of colored electrical tape and threw it into the trash can. “There goes a lot of hard work.”
He swallowed hard.
“Then you refused to apologize to the boy, showing a lack of respect to your peers, and a refusal to take personal responsibility for your actions. That’s two,” I said, snipping off the other orange stripe. I tossed it, too, into the trash.
Multiple tears began a NASCAR race down both cheeks.
“Z, you’re lucky you only have two stripes on your belt, because had you had three, you would have lost one more, because you were disrespectful to your mom.”
He nodded that he understood.
“You also don’t get to take the next test with the other yellow belts. Do you understand?”
“Yes…,” – tears were really gushing now from Z’s eyes, and he began sucking wind the way kids do when they’re really sad or hurt – “…ma’am.”
“Z, I know this is a hard lesson for you to learn, but it’s best you learn it from me than to get into real trouble someday because you can’t control yourself when you get mad.”
His eyes were a bloodshot red. He kept crying and sucking wind, crying and sucking wind. I knew that he was truly sorry for his behavior, and for a moment, I wanted to give him a big hug. I thought, “Geez, Cathy, he’s was only 7! Don’t be so hard on him.” I knew this was an important moment, though. The playground incident probably wasn’t the first time he’d lashed out in anger, but I needed to do my best to make sure it was the last.
As I looked at his yellow belt, I noticed a very bright yellow strip where one of the orange stripes had been. I showed it to him.
“Look, Z. Belts don’t lie. See here?” I asked, pointing to the bright yellow area. “You didn’t learn an important lesson here – that you have to practice self-control, that you can’t use Taekwondo when you get mad.”
He looked hard at the belt.
“Z, you’re good at Taekwondo. Real good. Already you could hurt someone with your feet and hands, and that’s why I have to do this today. But I want you to know that while I’m disappointed in how you acted today, I’m not mad at you. I just want you to learn self-control. I want this bright yellow part of your belt to match the gritty, gutsy, hard work, and good decisions of the rest of the belt. And I know you can do it.”
“Yes … (sucking more wind) … ma’am,” he said.
I invited his mother into the office, and together we agreed that the next time he sees the boy in the park, Z would apologize to him for his actions. Then Z, with his mom or dad by his side, would have to apologize to the boy’s parents, too.
I dismissed Z, and after he walked out of the office, his mom told me that this wasn’t the first time he’d lost his temper. However, it was the first time he’d done so in public.
As we both walked out of the office, Z’s mother turned around, looked me in the eye, and thanked me.
She. Thanked. Me.
How many parents these days will thank a teacher for being a hard ass to their kids?
I know we have a special school, but I again was blown away at the truly extraordinary relationships we build and maintain at Tao of Texas. And I felt validated that – although I never enjoy coming down hard on good kids – I’d done the right thing.
Out in the lobby, as Z sat on the floor putting on his little tennis shoes, he was still crying and looking very sad. I wanted to end our time together on a positive note.
“Z, I want you to know that I do love you, and I believe in you,” I said, smiling. “So you just keep coming back. Don’t quit.”
His lips turned up slightly – enough to show that a rainbow of resolve was likely to emerge at the end of his self-created storm – and he mouthed an inaudible, “Yes, ma’am.”
“See you next week,” I said smiling.
I’ve mentored enough kids to make these predictions:
• Z will learn to control his actions, to communicate with others in a respectful manner (even when they piss him off), and to verbally stand up to bullies instead of trying to physically go toe-to-toe.
• One day – sooner than I’d like – he’ll be a fine, outstanding and upstanding black belt who towers over me and heads off to some grand university, where he’ll face a new set of challenges.
• He’ll remember this day for the rest of his life. And I will, too.