Friday, January 21, 2011

If You Have a Voice, You Have a Choice

My newest students at the East Communities YMCA are a cross-culture mix of women and children—all in the midst of transforming weak peeps into powerful, self-confident voices through the study of Taekwondo and self-defense.

These students are learning that when they stand up for themselves and others, opportunities and hope become abundant.

My Tiny Texans (ages 3-6) can easily name the four weapons every person is born with: two feet and two hands. But no matter the age, everyone seems to stumble on naming the fifth one.

“Head!” one boy shouts out in class one day.

I nod approvingly. “Not a bad guess,” I say. “Yes, keeping a clear head is a vital asset in self-defense, but that’s not the answer I was looking for. Who else has an answer?”

“Eyes!” a girl shouts.

“Elbows!” another boy says.

“Knees!” two siblings agree.

The students keep guessing until finally the meekest girl in the room shyly raises her hand.

“Yes, Ms. Diller?”

“Your voice,” the 7-year-old squeaks.

“YES!” I shout, giving her a high-five. She smiles through missing front teeth.

Students rarely think of their voice as a weapon. Sure, everyday we see people yelling at each other on the street and on television. But rarely is the voice demonstrated as a positive, gentle-yet-firm tool to de-escalate confrontation or stand ground when boundaries are crossed.

A surprising number of women who attend my self-defense class for the first time struggle not to laugh or feel silly when they kihap, or use their spirit voice, while kicking or punching. So over the years, I’ve developed a fun, easy drill called “Blink/Don’t Blink.” When I find students who are shy about using their voice, I have them practice projecting the power of their kihap to make their partner blink. When on the receiving end of the kihap, students try to stay centered, calm, and unnerved—known in Japanese martial arts circles as the “state of no mind.”

Two new white belts—11-year-old twin brothers forever on the cusp of fierce competition and sibling bickering—had no problem finding their voice the other day once they stopped giggling.

At first they couldn’t keep a straight face.

“O.K.,” I said, “five push-ups every time you laugh at your brother.”

“One, ma’am; two, ma’am...,” they counted as they lifted and lowered their plank-straight bodies on the mat.

They each did a couple sets of push-ups, and became more serious.

“Ha!” one brother yelled. His twin still snickered.

“One, ma’am; two ma’am...” his brother counted as he did push-ups.

“Try again,” I said, encouraging them to picture themselves in a self-defense situation.

“No!” one yelled at the other, making him blink.

“Shut up!” the other retorted.

“O.K.,” I interrupted. “That was good. But I didn’t make myself clear on the parameters of this drill. Let’s be respectful. What’s another way to stand up for yourself without saying ‘shut up’?”

“Back away!” the brother shouted.

“Better!” I cheered.

Both brothers smiled. They were proud of what they were learning—forgetting that just moments before they couldn’t look each other in the eye without busting a gut.

As a teacher, it’s always a good day when you see your students grow and break barriers. Women who find their voice, though, are the most exciting for me to teach, for with this type of awakening, they tear down years of society’s messages of:
• “Be a nice girl.”
• “Don’t rock the boat.”
• “Ladies don’t act that way.”
• “You can’t say that.”
• “If you speak up like that, people will start calling you a b----.”

In addition, many women and youth I teach these days live on the poorest side of town. They may already believe messages such as:
• “You’re destined to stay poor and powerless.”
• “Your options in life are limited.”
• “Look out for No. 1 because no one’s got your back.”
• “You might as well get high because you’re life’s not going anywhere.”

Get a group of women and kids together in one of my martial arts classes, though, and watch a light go on in their psyche, a flame flicker in their spirit, and a powerful, previously squashed voice rise from the depths of their soul.

Last Sunday, one lady in my Fit for Defense class almost made herself blink from the voice that erupted like a volcano from her diaphragm. Another woman who came in with a chirp left with a voice as strong as a bullhorn.

They stumbled out of the room afterward amazed by their meager personal triumphs. I wanted to tell them that more will be revealed, but I feared they couldn’t handle any more empowerment, lest their spirits go supernova right there.

I’m blessed that on my journey, many martial arts masters helped me find my voice. I’m honored to pass on my knowledge—to help others find their voices, too. It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to build hope in others?

If you have a voice, you have a choice.

And from there, anything is possible.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

When Two Garage Doors Close, Another One Opens

Alexander Graham Bell said, “When one door closes, another one opens.”

This week, Bell’s words came to fruition: On Monday I closed the doors of the building where I started Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute five years ago. On Tuesday I opened the door to the East Communities YMCA and walked in to the next phase of my martial arts life: teaching Taekwondo to kids from the poorest side of Austin—hoping to help them make positive life choices to counter what they see (crime, drugs, gangs) every day.

As exciting as it is to begin a new program in a new place for a new purpose, I’m feeling a mixture of sadness and fatigue today. Change for the better is still change, and there’s grief in leaving anything behind—even when you’re moving on to something better.

As I sat on the floor of the now-empty, echo-replying training hall Monday night, I fully understood the cliché “memories flooded in”. I avoid clichés, but dang it, this one is appropriate to describe how it felt to look around the dojang, remembering all the events, people, and transformations that occurred since Tao of Texas MAI opened.

What I Will Miss

I will miss that old school—and I emphasize the word “old”. It was a cement-walled, double-garage-door building with dark wooden rafters, zero insulation, and funky smelling fluorescent lights. It was frigid in the winter and brutally hot in the summer, had minor flooding issues, and sensitive electric wiring. It was always either the coldest, windiest, or rainiest day of the year—at night—when the breakers decided they had had enough and flipped out. I had to trudge outside with a flashlight and flip them back on. Oftentimes, I ended up switching off all the wrong levers until I found the correct switch.

The building may have been old, but it was because it was old that I loved it so much. It held a lot of spirit and character, and it helped me and my students train hard and dig deep. Five students became black belts, two black belts promoted to higher ranks, and I received a third-degree promotion. Hundreds of children and adults learned thousands of lessons regarding not only how to punch, kick, spar, and break wood, but also how to improve their fitness and health and become more honest, responsible, patient, compassionate, and respectful people. Not a bad five years spent, if you ask me.

With the mirrors, mats, and training equipment gone, I felt a little sad (correction: WAY SAD) about the other things I’ll miss. Things such as:

• The feeling of a cold mat beneath my feet on a winter day. My students sometimes complained that their toes were numb from the cold floor, and some claimed they had frostbite. I now treasure their exaggerations. I loved the cold, though. It made me feel alive. And cold or not, we always worked hard enough to produce a good stream of sweat by the end of class.

• The feeling of sweaty bangs and a sopping wet dobok after a long day of good, hard training at the height of summer

• The cool shower at home AFTER a long day of good, hard training at the height of summer

• The jump line, where kids and adults honed their jumping skills. Nathan and Matthew, two of my teenage students, spent a week one summer painting cement blocks on the wall—floor to ceiling—the colors from our belt ranks. (Tim Diller was the only one who actually reached “Super Red”.)

• The “Don’t Quit” sign, which encouraged me and my students to keep going even though training—and life—became hard

• The many guest instructors and visitors who helped my students see beyond Taekwondo—that life and other arts are out there and that we should always be open-minded to learning new things. Ilene Smoger Sensei of the Okinawan Karate Club of Dallas taught a bo weapons class; Andrew Budd Sensei taught Enshin Karate techniques; and my old master, Kyoshi Ivan Ujueta of the Professional Karate Institute in San Antonio, introduced my students to Jukido, the gentle, powerful way. Then there were Kelly and Mike from Toronto, Canada, who worked out with us one Saturday morning and taught everyone Tang Soo Do forms. My students still talk about all of these people, the fun they had, and what they learned.

• The anime character painted on the wall by another one of my teenagers. It was Lacy’s first paid gig as an artist, and her friend Danielle took a blurry picture of us as I handed Lacy her check.

• The very spot I stood on the mat when I realized I had to flunk a black belt candidate because she quit a task on the test. She learned a hard lesson that day, and I did, too. On her retest, she learned to persevere despite what trash her mind was talking, and I learned that by not enabling my students today, I enable them to succeed tomorrow. (Today, she is one of my finest black belts.)

• The sight of the ceiling fans and the Plexiglass windows shaking when the Enshin Karate guys hit the heavy Sabaki bag. These guys’ kicks were fierce. The small blood stains on the six-foot-tall bag proved it.

• The harsh knocking and banging sound from the Ving Tsun Kung Fu brothers working on the jong, a wooden dummy used in Chinese martial arts training. It was kind of scary to watch how these men attacked that wooden dummy.

• Lock-Ins. My students and I had a blast each time they brought their sleeping bags in for an overnight stay—and the parents appreciated a “date night” without having to come home early to relieve a babysitter. We always held a “Midnight Writer’s Group,” where adults and kids met at midnight to talk about the craft of writing and to share their work. And at around 4 a.m., when many of the kids had finally crashed, some teenager always seem to be in a talking mood, revealing thoughts, dreams, and fears that I doubted even their parents knew. I was honored to listen.

What I Won’t Miss

With the mirrors, mats, and training equipment packed away, I felt relief (correction: A HUGE WEIGHT OFF MY SHOULDERS) about all the things I won’t miss, such as:

• The long hours. Five days a week, I worked 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m. as a copy editor for an educational publishing company, then taught multiple classes in the late afternoon/early evening, did financial/administrative paperwork at home, ate dinner late, and (with whatever time was left) loved on my partner, four dogs, and cat. I chose to continue working my day job to pay personal bills because I didn’t want money to influence how I ran the school. I was able to remain true to that plan, and even though the schedule was exhausting, and I missed a lot of time with family and friends, I don’t regret my choice to make martial arts training affordable.

• Keeping track of tuition payments and paying bills and taxes. Ick.

• The restroom door lock that always had to be adjusted when the building’s foundation shifted

• Those pesky mosquitoes that loved to visit our open-air dojang in the summertime. We kept them off our bodies by spraying insect repellant and keeping our limbs kicking and punching.

• The trickle of water that flowed into the building from outside during a hard rain. (Oftentimes it was more than a trickle.)

• Keeping the back lot weed-free and cut short. Students were never back there—never saw it. Heck, I rarely saw it. However, as a tenant, I was responsible for keeping it cut. It contributed nothing to the school—and was another physically taxing chore.

• Trimming the heavy ivy-like vines that grew along the electricity line just outside our garage doors. If I didn’t trim them, the mosquitoes bred like rabbits.

• Cleaning the dojang, especially the bathroom, where sometimes boys missed their intended target. Eew.

What I Learned

In five years, I’ve seen many small businesses (even martial arts schools) come and go. I’ve had some of my best enrollment months despite stock market fluctuations and hard economic times. I learned a lot by watching other businesses fail and prosper, and personally, I’m grateful to have learned that:

• I’m a fabulous youth instructor.

• I’m not meant to run a school—ever again.

• I was smart not to incur new debt (besides a meager start-up loan) and make the business support itself. Now I’m closing the school DEBT-FREE. In five years, I’ve seen many small businesses fold due to bankruptcy issues, so I feel extra fortunate that I stuck to my guns on this issue. (Wait. That was a cliché, wasn’t it? Grrrr.)

• Material goods and money don’t motivate me. People do.

• Life is too short to spend one more second doing something because others think I should, or because they think I’d be good at it.

• I’m at my best and happiest when I’m teaching and mentoring—being of service to others.

• I don’t have an inherent need to be the top dog. I don’t have a problem taking orders from others. Hence, for me, it’s less stressful to work for someone else and let them pay me to teach, pay the rent and electricity bills, collect tuition, keep the books up to date, pay (the majority of) the taxes, cut the lawn—and clean the boys’ restrooms.

As I collect all the old building’s keys and prepare to turn them into the leasing office, I know that this time next year I will have compiled a whole new list of bullets like the ones above. And that’s O.K., because if there’s one thing I’ve learned most, it’s that when one door closes, another one always opens wide to a new adventure.