Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Mendy Prince Challenge: Live the Tenets

My Dear Students:

Please give a fabulous, raucous, and insanely jubilant welcome to Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute’s newest black belt—Ms. Mendy Prince.

Don’t remember seeing her on the mat? Her name doesn’t ring a bell? That’s O.K. I have good reason to promote this woman to the rank of Honorary 1st Dan Black Belt in Taekwondo. Let me tell you why.

I’ve been a Taekwondo instructor for 12 years. In that time, I’ve taught hundreds of students ages 3-63 "the way of the hand and foot" through courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit. But also in that time, I’ve promoted only six students to black belt.

Mendy is lucky No. 7.

A few years ago, a petite young lady strolled into Tao of Texas Martial Arts in AustinTexas, with her girlfriend, whose 5-year-old son had just enrolled in my Tiny Texans class. She looked familiar, and later I remembered that she had worked with my partner, Marianna, at Animal Trustees of Austin.

Even back then, I could tell that Mendy’s thin, slight build was an illusion; she had a powerful presence. Anyone could feel it.

Mendy never joined Tao of Texas MAI as a Taekwondo student. Instead, she sat on the benches near the open-air dojang’s garage door, gleefully taking on the role of a Tiny Texans groupie. She smiled, laughed, and quietly cheered as she watched 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds running, jumping, kicking, and punching.

Then in December 2010, her girlfriend and son began coming to class without her. I learned that Mendy had had a radial neck dissection—a fancy way of saying that lymph nodes, muscles, nerves, tonsils, and various other tissues were removed from her neck. Multiple biopsies were performed, and the diagnosis was grim: Stage 4 cancer.

She went through radiation and chemotherapy. Friends in Austin buzz-cut their heads, and other supporters started a Chip-In online account and held a poker party to raise money for the thousands of dollars in medical bills that wouldn’t be covered by insurance.

Mendy fought HARD, enduring more surgical procedures (which I won’t detail), and for a while, it seemed she just might get ahead of this ugly and unforgiving disease.

She eventually moved back home in Washington state to be with her family, and via Facebook, she chronicled every step of her journey. Through social media, she accounted for her best and worst days. She changed her profile status to reflect her new position at “Enjoying My Life”. She shared pictures and gems of wisdom from inspirational web sites, posted great photos of family gatherings and of a snow-capped Mount Ranier, and radiated an unending stream of gratitude and hope.

Perseverance was her mantra.

She suffered a recurrence of cancer, but she never gave up.

She had good and bad days—days of high joy and nights of skull-crushing headaches no medication would relieve—but she never gave up.

She suffered more pain than any woman—anyone—should know, but she never gave up.

Along the way, a few friends left her side, unable to emotionally cope with being there for someone fighting cancer. This broke Mendy’s heart—she shared this, too, on Facebook—but she never gave up.

Doctor’s gave her bad news upon bad news, but she never gave up.

She went through more chemotherapy until her body couldn’t take it anymore, but she—her spirit—never gave up.

Before me on Facebook, her fighting spirit grew larger by the day.

On Friday, her friend Fawn posted a note on Mendy’s Facebook page saying that Mendy was losing her battle with cancer.

“She is the best fighter I’ve ever seen,” Fawn wrote. “She is a heavyweight. A champion.”

I had to agree, and I knew what I needed to do.

So on Friday, June 22, 2012, I did something I never thought I’d do—and I did it without my master instructor’s permission:

On behalf of Tao of Texas Martial Arts and the World Taekwondo Federation, I hereby award an Honorary 1st Dan Black Belt to Ms. Mendy Prince. She receives this award in honor of her tremendous courage, perseverance, and indomitable spirit. She has generously and selflessly inspired hundreds of people in her fight with cancer, and has made the world an immeasurably better place.

Next, I silently prayed, “Mendy, you may lay down your sword whenever you’re ready. I’ll continue your fight for you. You did good, girl. You won.”

Mendy died on Monday, 90 minutes after I ordered her embroidered black belt.

Although I’m proud of the students I’ve promoted in the past, Mendy was extraordinary. You see, she had a Rocky Balboa heart, timeless hope, ageless wisdom, and a soft and serene smile amid the worst of circumstances. She didn’t just practice the five tenets of Taekwondo—courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit. She LIVED the tenets.

Her parting message was “I’m not done.” (I told you that perseverance was her mantra.)

Well, guys, you know what this means:

If Mendy’s not done, than neither are we. Let her spirit and memory live on—not just on a certificate and a two-inch-wide, gold-embroidered black belt (which her parents will receive in about a month)—but in the hearts and minds of all who, like her, seek to do great things with whatever time we have left on this Earth.

Mendy was a warrior beyond words. She will be a hard black belt to follow.

Are you ready to step up?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Trust Your GUT

Earlier this week, a well-known and highly regarded martial arts instructor killed himself, just days before local police were to file charges that he sexually molested an associate. (See the Orlando Sentinel article here: http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2012-06-13/news/fl-karate-instructor-20120613_1_molestation-case-international-martial-arts-association-travis-mandell.)

There won’t be a trial. Guilt or innocence won't be determined. The facts in the matter may never be proven or disproven. I can’t begin to imagine the pain of the survivors of this tragedy, but it’s certainly left an awful nausea in my stomach.

Earlier today, I thought nothing good can come of this. And then I remembered an event early on in my martial arts career.

When I was a lowly white belt, I trained for two weeks with a Korean Taekwondo master. One day, I was the only student in his noon class, and while I loved the individual attention, something felt—off .

He put me through the ringer, preparing me for a yellow belt test he said I was already ready for. (Two weeks = yellow belt? This should have been my first red flag.) I was slightly afraid of him, for he was very demanding and physically rough. But there was something else about him that I couldn't quite pin down (no Jiu Jitsu pun intended).

When I arrived for the next class, the one in which I was scheduled to take my yellow belt test, I saw a note on the front door saying, "Closed due family emergency." I later found out that he was in jail; one of his female black belts had accused him of sexual assault. He quickly closed the school, and I heard from a police friend that he fled to South Korea to avoid prosecution.

I felt stunned, sad, and grateful. I had dodged a bullet, but another woman hadn’t been so lucky.

A few weeks later, I walked into the office of another martial arts master and school owner. We talked for a bit about my training history and I asked him some questions. Again, I got that odd feeling.

I respectfully bid the man goodbye and never returned.

Was I right about him? I don’t know. When it comes to trusting my instincts, I’ve decided that I don’t have to know whether I’m right. Today I practice the fine and delicate art of listening to that little voice inside my body that says—as I leave on a cloudless, sunshiny morning—I'd best take an umbrella. Because it will rain later. Really, really hard.

It’s as simple as that.

Instincts are survival skills given to us at birth that somehow get taken away. Think about babies. They know who they want to go to and who to avoid. When did we forget that knowledge? Or did we ever forget it? Do we still have it, but listen to social norms that tell us to be nice, respectful, and conforming to authority figures?

I'm a martial arts teacher who insists her students be respectful to parents, siblings, teachers, and peers—with one exception: Not at the expense of your safety!

Unfortunately, as long as there are authority figures among us, someone will abuse that role. So please, please, please, trust your instincts. When you get a funny feeling in your GUT (an acronym for God's Unique Talk), flee. Whether it’s a school teacher, martial arts instructor, pastor, mentor, or a popular celebrity who gives you the creeps—LEAVE, and then tell someone about your experience.

Parents, if you haven't had that scary talk with your kids about inappropriate touching, have it with them TODAY. Pop some popcorn and sit at the dining room table. Go to an ice cream parlor, sit outside in the sun, and be lovingly blunt. Let them ask all kinds of embarrassing questions. Squirm in your seat as you struggle to answer. But answer them. It'll be OK. You'll be glad you did this. Trust me.

Are you a survivor of abuse who's never spoken about it? Tell someone TODAY. It's O.K. to talk about it. Talking about this is the only way this abuse can stop. Authority-figure predators rely on secrecy. The secrets keep us all sick. Break the silence so that the healing can begin.

Talk to someone today. Talk until you're blue in the face and you're about to faint. Talk, talk, talk, and then talk some more. Your experience just might save a child's innocence—and a life.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Guest Post: Sweet Determination

The following is a letter Hannah Diller wrote to her daughter, Eliza, after Eliza rocked a blue belt rank exam in Taekwondo. I absolutely loved it, and so, with permission, I'm sharing it.

THIS is the power of martial arts, folks!

Dear Eliza:

You know how sometimes you or one of your siblings confront something that makes you quail—a long division problem, or a dictation sentence with words you don’t know how to spell yet, or maybe something even tougher? Like breaking a wooden board with your foot in front of other people when it really counts? And I, your goofy mother, put on my best Brahmin accent—which, granted, darling, isn’t terribly good—and I say to you ...

“We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon in this deCADE and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are HAWD.”

And you sort of roll your eyes and think, Oh, gosh, my mom is going all President Kennedy on me again.

I wonder if you remembered that when the tears quivered in your eyes and the butterflies raged in your stomach and there was no backing down from the hard thing, the moment you had been dreading since before your belt test began.

I expect you to stand up to challenges, even though (because?) you tend to be meek, quiet, and gentle in publicbecause I want you to know the strength that is already in you.

And I repeat that quote to you because I need to hear it myself. Because I fear the hard things and long to take the comfortable, self-protecting way out. But it’s the resistance to that way that builds the muscles we shy girls need.


Keep on kicking, beautiful girl. All the way to the moon!