Thursday, July 11, 2013

Quitting Quitting

The elderly Mrs. Lewis stood in front of her high school honors English class with a withering piece of white chalk in her hand. This was not unusual. Neither was the finely ironed paisley dress she wore or her facial oil-smudged glasses that often rested at the tip of her nose. She had suddenly stopped writing on the blackboard, turning to face the class to say something important. At the time, I wondered why she stopped mid-sentence, mid-lesson to say what she did. It had nothing to do with the lesson on the literary significance of “Paradise Lost” by John Milton. It didn’t seem as important as the emphasis she gave. I was in the National Honor Society, though, so I paid attention. I just didn’t see what her words had to do with me.

“Ten percent of students in this class will be teachers,” she announced, looking right at me. Then she turned back to the blackboard to finish detailing our homework assignment in beautiful, whirling cursive.

Not me, I scoffed. I dreamed of being a writer like John Boy on “The Waltons”. I wanted to work for the New York Times and win a Pulitzer Prize. If that didn’t work out, I wanted to shave the oily hair from my head, become a monk, and live in some serene Shaolin temple. I could practice martial arts all day like Grasshopper, the character David Carradine played in my favorite TV series, “Kung Fu.”

Mrs. Lewis wasn’t talking about me. I was sure of it. But why was she looking at me? As if I was the only student in the room. As if she knew something that I didn’t. It was creepy and eerie. I was so certain she was wrong, yet her knowing look troubled me. I promptly pushed the memory of that day out of my mind.

I’ve been a Taekwondo teacher for 13 years now. I love teaching, and I can’t think of anything else (besides writing about teaching) I’d rather do. I feel the most at peace and powerful when mentoring a bunch or rowdy, self-centered, unfocused kids into mature, respectful, and responsible teens and adults who will likely become courteous, honest, and compassionate leaders in their careers and communities.

But boy, I dragged my feet kicking and screaming all the way here. Left bloody fingernail streaks on the walls of life the entire way. I didn’t want my destiny, but my destiny wanted me. And it was patient.

Would you blame me for having doubts, though? Who in their right mind would peg me as a youth martial arts instructor anyway? Early on, I was no mental, physical, or spiritual role model. I could barely stay in my own skin.

  • I was a newly recovering alcoholic and hypochondriac who feared exercise because it raised my heart rate. I might have a seizure or heart attack. I could drop dead at any moment, and I wasn’t ready to die just yet.
  • My bachelor’s degree was in journalism. I could correct grammar errors all day, but I didn’t know squat about teaching plans.
  • I took one psychology course at the University of Texas at Austin. It wasn’t child psychology, either, and I don’t remember much. (Most likely, I slept through or was hung over for much of the class.)
  • I loved infants—mostly because they couldn’t speak. But put me in a room with children ages two and up, who were developing the ancient art of saying “No,” and I became a terrified, whimpering idiot.

I don’t know what Mrs. Lewis saw in me. After all, for most of my life, I’ve been a big, fat quitter. Dreams, goals, and tasks I started with passion were repeatedly and unceremoniously dumped. I lacked heart. My soul was soft. If allowed, I’d give up on anything once it became a trial and a hardship—once I realized that I wouldn’t be perfect.

My lineage of quitting ran deep.

I wanted to quit Mrs. Stallkneck’s third-grade class, but Mamma wouldn’t let me. It was my first advanced-paced challenge, and I was terribly afraid of failing. I thought all my classmates were smarter than me. In my limited first- and second-grade experience, I was already used to being the smartest student in the room. Suddenly I wasn’t. I was in a class filled with kids who also were used to being the smartest ones in the room, but they didn’t seem to mind their lower status. I didn’t understand why I was in an advanced class for being smart; I felt so stupid.

I cried almost every day. Cried over my Lucky Charms in the morning. Cried while tying my shoes before heading out the door for my half-a-block walk to school. Cried at the kitchen table later that afternoon while doing homework. I tried not to cry in school, but sometimes tears would uncontrollably spurt out the corners of my eyes. I didn’t understand anything anymore, and was confused and miserable. But when I asked Mamma if I could move to another class—one that wasn’t so hard—she refused. Adamant, in fact. I didn’t know until years later that she dropped out of school in the sixth grade. She had been a quitter, too, and she wasn’t about to let me repeat her mistake.

No matter how I cried, Mamma wouldn’t budge. She was a stubborn woman. Even at nine years old, I knew I wouldn’t win this fight. So I quit: I quit bothering her. I don’t know what the tipping point was or when it happened, but I stopped crying one day and just went to school. (When I graduated from high school, I won a four-year, all-expenses-paid scholarship to the Texas public university of my choice, and I have Mamma to thank for that.)

Despite some successes, doubt and fear dictated many of my early life decisions and detours. As an adult, without Mamma around to right my course, I quit striving for dreams and didn’t even attempt other curiosities. I didn’t want to look any more stupid than I already felt. More important, I didn’t want to fail.

In public.

Where everyone and their grandmothers could see my imperfections.

In college, I quit a women’s co-op house manager’s job at the halfway point of a one-year term. I never wanted the job to begin with. My best friend and some of my housemates convinced me that my diplomatic nature would be an asset. They thought I’d make a good, level-headed leader. Truthfully, they didn’t want to be led by the more outspoken, wild-mustang-personality housemate vying for the position. Of course, I was elected, and was immediately miserable and insecure. I quit after one semester, and the housemate whom everyone feared would get the position finally did. She worked her butt off to do a fantastic job.

During my first newspaper job in East Texas, the publisher of the Marshall News Messenger gave me the opportunity to run a one-person show for the weekly Hallsville Herald. I did it all: reporting, editing, layout, hot wax paste-up, accidental finger slicing. I quit that job after about six months. Heck, I left East Texas completely.

I ended up in West Texas, where the reporters in the Lifestyle section of the daily Lubbock Avalanche-Journal called me “Sneakers” because of how I was dressed for an unintentional job interview. I came to the newspaper that day to visit one of my former Marshall News Messenger colleagues, who showed me around the Avalanche-Journal newsroom and introduced me to the newspaper’s managing editor. By the time I left, that managing editor offered me the open medical reporter position. I lasted six months, and the Avalanche-Journal’s PBX operator won the “How long do you think she’ll last?” pool. Even my colleagues saw something odd in me.

On the Gulf of Mexico, I finally broke the six-month pattern: I stayed at the daily Corpus Christi Caller-Times for three whopping years. I worked with some great reporters and editors and we won many awards for our hard work. Still, irritability, restlessness, and discontent remained, and though I stayed at the job for three years, I started and stopped other things in life. I had a six-month window of happiness with apartments. I moved so often that Mamma refused to take down my new phone number.

“What’s the use,” she said one day. “You’re just gonna move in six months anyway. You call me from now on.”

At the Caller-Times, I helped lead one of the best small-market newspapers in the state as assistant news editor and then news editor. But leadership positions never lasted long. I was a worried and unhappy boss. I hired people I didn’t want to hire, fired people I didn’t want to fire, and drank more and more at bars and at home to quell an ever-growing anxiety. It was apparent to most colleagues that I was a stressed mess. (In a co-worker’s cartoon of the copy desk staff, I appeared as a fist-clinched caricature who screamed, “Doesn’t anyone care about our deadline?!”)

After about—yes, six months—I asked to be reassigned as assistant news editor again. Newspaper executives shook their heads in confusion, but finally, albeit reluctantly, obliged. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. Neither could I.

Finally, I quit something that eventually helped me quit quitting: I stopped drinking alcohol. I went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and found a sponsor, someone who mentored me through the Twelve Steps and helped calm my crazy thoughts and impulses. It was as a recovering alcoholic that I learned to mentor others. Hilda C., my sponsor, gave me no choice.

“You want to stay sober?” she asked one day. “Then seek God. Clean house. Help others.” I wanted to stay sober, so I did what she told me. Hilda helped with many timely reminders such as “keep it simple.” I didn’t need to be an expert in neuroscience or astrophysics to mentor another drunk. I only had to humbly remember how I got screwed up, detail the steps I took to change, and share the gratitude I had for the life I now lived.

“See how your experience can benefit others,” she reminded me.

I willingly accepted her guidance, and that’s when I felt an internal click. Although I still hadn’t remembered Mrs. Lewis’s words, her prophesy began to manifest itself. Working with others—helping people—made me feel alive. Like I mattered. Like I made a difference. And for a naturally depressed person, those feelings are crucial.

As a one-year sobriety gift to myself—a self-amends, as Hilda called it—I joined a martial arts school in San Antonio led by a man who had a bald head and wore a kung fu uniform, just like Grasshopper.

Within every martial art, there is a tradition of teaching others—of senior students taking juniors to the side and showing them a punch, kick, pattern, or self-defense technique. So eventually, there I was: Teaching.

Though no more perfect than before, I was finally willing to learn the art of vulnerability and perseverance. Like Hilda encouraged, I was seeing how my experience could benefit others. I didn’t have to be perfect. I wasn’t supposed to be perfect. The point was to teach through the mistakes I had made myself so that those who followed wouldn’t have to suffer. For the better part of my life, I had been afraid of people. It was a fear that I was surprisingly willing to overcome simply because teaching in the martial arts is expected.

I grew mentally, physically, and spiritually—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, most times painfully, but always thankfully.

The time spent teaching has been some of the best years of my life. Though 13 years later I feel drawn away from Taekwondo—itching to be a student again in another art—I’m still, and will always be, a teacher.

Thanks, Mrs. Lewis.


  1. I do not recognize this person...except for the honesty and integrity visible in the story sharing itself!

  2. Osu! I am very much looking forward to one day teaching with you.

  3. You've grown into an accomplished teacher AND writer. Mrs. Lewis looked through the skin-deep stuff and saw your writer's heart. I can't wait to see your book in print!