Since my Taekwondo students and I began sharing space at a ving tsun kung fu school, we’ve had some powerful end-of-class discussions. I’m convinced it’s the vibe. The studio’s chi invites honest, open communication; compassion; and awareness.
Yesterday’s mat chat was another mind-blower. It all started when I asked everyone how school was going.
Most nodded. “Good,” they said.
“Today I had a problem with this kid,” Neal, a nine-year-old orange belt, offered.
“Oh?” I said. “Tell us about it.”
“He threw a football at my back—twice. I told him not to do it because I had rods in my back and that he could really hurt me. I even showed him my scars.”
Twice a year, Neal undergoes a surgical procedure to help his spine grow properly.
“Wow,” I said. “And did the kid keep throwing the football at you after that?”
“No. I don’t think he realized that when I told him that I had surgery that it was serious,” Neal said, his eyes growing wide.
I sat there for a moment, taking in how a nine-year-old could muster up this much courage.
“I’m so proud of you for confronting him,” I said. “I’m also proud of how you did it. You didn’t shame him or call him names or lash out in anger. You educated him on something he was clueless about.”
Neal smiled. “I just don’t think he realized how serious it was.”
Elliott, an eleven-year-old green belt, shared next. He’d been struggling to be heard by an Ultimate Frisbee teammate. The older, bigger classmate was pairing up people to guard opposing players without regard for his teammates’ preferences.
“I’m really sorry he’s doing that,” I said. “How could this be different?”
“I’m not sure,” Elliott said.
“Does this kid bully everyone on the field?”
“Well then what if you talked to some of your peers about standing up to him as a group.”
Elliott paused. I sensed discomfort.
“Can you at least think about it?”
“Yes, I’ll think about it.”
“Because here’s the deal: Can you play Ultimate Frisbee by yourself?”
“No!” everyone in the class answered.
“So if as a group you told him that his behavior was unacceptable and that if he didn’t let other teammates participate in the pairings, none of you would play anymore, he wouldn’t have anyone to play with, would he? Then he might be willing to change. You’ll never know until you try it out.”
“I’ll think about it,” Elliott repeated.
Last to share was Alice, a ten-year-old purple belt.
“There’s this boy in my class who’s been really mean to me,” she began. “But then I saw him with his father at open house night at school, and his father was really mean to him. I felt sorry for him that he was growing up like that. And I saw why he’s mean. So I decided to be his friend.”
The room suddenly became so quiet that you could have heard a feather drop.
A parent listening from the spectator section whispered, “Oh, wow.”
“That is mature beyond years, young lady,” I said. “You’re so right about why he acts that way, too. Kids aren’t born bullies. It’s a learned behavior. He learned it from someone else.
“And you know, guys, this is exactly what we need to keep in mind when someone is ugly to us. It’s not you. It’s them. They have the problem. And Alice, I’m so incredibly proud of you. Keep doing what you’re doing.”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said with a sweet smile.
Though it was sad to hear that so many of my students were struggling with bullies, it also was encouraging to see that their martial arts training was paying huge dividends.