Students and teachers alike have lessons to learn, and last night, my students gave me the opportunity to reveal a boundary mistake I made years ago.
During self-defense training in the intermediate/advanced youth class, one of my Taekwondo students asked a great question. We weren’t discussing “stranger danger” scenarios; instead, we focused on the more common situations in which the attacker and target know each other. The blue belt’s question was simple:
“How do you know whether someone will keep pursuing you (after the initial attack)?”
I looked around and saw that there were some really young students in class, so I chose my words carefully so as not to scare them, but to drive home an important reality.
“If you know your attacker, that’s a more personal attack, and they are more likely to chase you after you escape their grasp. That’s why it’s important that after your release, you hit them hard before you run. Does that make sense?”
The blue belt shook his head no.
“O.K., I don’t mean to frighten any of you with this, but this is something that happens to some kids,” I began.
I knew the blue belt was going to leave in two weeks to visit relatives in Ireland, so I used that in my example.
“Let’s say your parents went to Ireland without you. And after they left, I told you that your mom gave you permission to spend the night at my house. She’s already gone, so you can’t check that out. And you don’t really want to stay at my house; you get a funny feeling about that. But I’m your teacher and you want to please me, and you trust me. So you go. But when you get to my house, I touch or grab you in a way that is inappropriate. You know it’s inappropriate, so you fight me. Do you think I’ll pursue you?”
His shoulders rose in uncertainty.
“Yes! I will! I don’t want you to tell your mom. She knows me. You know me. My secret will get out, and I don’t want that to happen. Now does that make a little more sense?”
"Ohhhhh!" he said as his eyes grew wider. “Yes, ma’am.”
I turned to the others.
“Does everyone get that? If you don’t, come talk to me after class. I don’t mean to scare you, but this is important.”
“Yes, ma’am,” they said in unison.
There are moments in life when you know it’s time—for apologies, for confrontation, and for revelation. I knew this was the ideal time to tell my students about the mistake I made. I was a little weary of what the parents—listening attentively in the spectator section—might think of me afterward, but I felt it was important to reveal nonetheless.
“By the way,” I said, “there’s no reason one of you should stay overnight at my house. None. Years ago, I made the mistake of letting Martin spend the night at my house.” Martin, now 18 years old, was in the next room teaching the Family Class. He’s been my student since he and his twin brother were 8 years old.
“He was about 14 that summer, and we were both working the National Junior Olympics at the Convention Center—early mornings and late nights all week long. His mom and dad asked me if he could stay overnight at my house Friday and I give him a ride to the tournament Saturday morning so that they could sleep in. They both worked hard at their jobs, and they’d been very generous in allowing him to work the tournament, so I agreed.
“It didn’t even occur to me at the time how that might be wrong. But now, years later, I’ve found out a lot more about how some martial art teachers take advantage of their students and abuse them.
“I’ll never make that mistake again.”
The students gave an understanding nod, and I knew from the look in their eyes that I had planted a seed they wouldn’t forget.
“O.K., let’s continue: Escaping bear grabs from the back….”
After class, some parents expressed gratitude for broaching a scary subject, and for my honesty. Some simply met my eyes with a knowing gratitude. I simply bowed.
I learned a great lesson from what at the time was an innocent mistake. Some martial arts industry leaders have been accused of horrible abuse, and most of these incidents have a common detail: students slept over at instructors' houses without parental supervision. I know now that that's a boundary that should never be crossed, however innocently, and that it's up to me to set and maintain that boundary.
If in the future any of my students ask to sleep over at my house, I will politely, simply, and yet firmly respond, "No."
I won't make that mistake again.