Friday, September 28, 2012

The Power of 'We'

All my martial arts life, I've followed masters, grandmasters, sifus, senseis, and kyoshis. By far, most have been fine, upstanding, and honorable people whom I’ve admired and respected, and from whom I've learned a great deal. A few, however, have been schmucks: Beer-belly black belts. Womanizers. Contract czars interested only in improving their monetary bottom line. It's not surprising that these same people also insisted there be strict respect for their place at the top of the hierarchy.

I’ve learned from the best—sometimes because the best were the worst examples.

I’m a great teacher, but I’ve never felt comfortable being the Grand Poobah. I’m most comfortable as a mentor/assistant—a spiritual guide. I’m not my students’ friend, but I’m also not a militaristic monster. One could blame all this on twelve-step recovery programs. When I began attending meetings in the early 1990s, I heard how folks there emphasized the word "we."

Small word. Big meaning.

My fellows drilled in the concept of unity and service as a pathway to recovery. It was comforting to me to know that I wasn’t alone in my journey—that we were all in this together. So when I began teaching, I used the unity approach. My grandmaster wanted my students to call me by my last name, so I began calling my students by their last name. My grandmaster wanted students to do 30 pushups, 30 crunches, and 30 leg lifts at the end of every class, so I did the warm-down with them. If I called on a student who didn't know the character rule of the week, the class did push-ups, and I joined in. (If they didn't know it, I obviously had not emphasized the importance of knowing and practicing our character development points.)

Peers told me I was doing it wrong.

“You’ve got to put (the students) in their place or they won’t respect you,” a fellow instructor said one day.

True: I had no teaching experience at the time. I was just thrown out on the mat one day. I didn't know what I was doing, but I knew what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to be an oppressive emperor—a master over minions. So I used my recovery program as a guide. I believed in the power of “we”—that teachers lead students and that there is mutual respect for everyone’s journey. I’m sure I raised a few industry eyebrows when I opened my studio as a third-degree black belt and had fourth- and fifth-degree veterans teaching for me. But it worked because—just like in those recovery programs—our common welfare came first.

Last night I got a chance to explain this to my students. At the end of every class, we form a circle and yell, “Taekwondo—don't quit!” As we formed the circle at the end of class, a young girl asked, “Ms. Chapaty, how come no one’s in the center (of the circle)?”

“That's a great question,” I said. “No one is better or worse, higher or lower, or more important or less important. You help me be a better teacher, and I try to help you be a better student. We’re all in this together.

“So,” I said, turning to the others, “Let the circle represent what we can do together that we cannot do alone. One, two, three…”

The class and I yelled together: “Taekwondo—don't quit!”

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Happy Birthday Black Belt

This is JP, and he's one of my long-time students. He’s not a black belt, but he plays one on TV. (Kidding.) We have a tradition at Tao of Texas MAI that if a kid trains on his birthday, he gets to wear the Happy Birthday Black Belt, lead the class in warm-ups, assist in the teaching plan, and, time permitting, pick a fun, end-of-class game.
Some old-school martial artists will likely grumble, judging this tradition as sacrilege.

“You’re cheapening the black belt!” they’ll cry.

In this age of McDojos, their reaction would be appropriate. If you don’t train under me, you don’t know that it takes an average, no-talent, poorly coordinated kid six to eight years to reach black belt—that because I’m an editor by day-trade, I’m equally a stickler for technical details on the mat.

Because I’m traditional-minded, meaning that my students attain black belts when they’re ready, not when some contract is expiring, I wanted to find a way to plant black belt seeds in my young students.

Solution? I got a one-size-fits-all black belt and had my mother-in-law embroider “Happy” on one tail and “Birthday” on the other. Once a year for one hour—if they make time to train during their busy and exciting celebration-filled day—they get to wear this two-inch-wide piece of black cloth. For one hour, these students get to see and feel what it’s like to be a black belt—not just the fanfare, but also the responsibility. Suddenly, whirling ADHD boys turn into calm, focused, and mature leaders. Shy girls become strong and confident teachers. When kids wear the Happy Birthday Black Belt, amazing transformations occur.

Of course, when class is over, they have to trade in the black belt for their own typically dirty belt. But I always leave them with this plant-the-seed reminder:

“Happy Birthday! Remember what it feels like to wear this, especially on the days when you're tired and don't want to give 100% effort. If you always give your best, there'll come a day when I'll wrap this sucker around your waist, and you won't have to give it back. So keep working hard.”

This tradition allows students to test drive a black belt. It represents a taste that then creates a hunger for the real thing. It’s the inspiration to punch harder, kick higher, focus sharper, eat better, drink more water and fewer sodas, study harder, and help out around the house without parents asking—to do the day-to-day; practice, practice, practice; less-glamorous work toward wholeness and self-improvement.

So, Happy Birthday, JP. I can’t wait for the day when I wrap that belt around you for good.