On Saturday, I had the chance to watch a short yet powerful transformational moment. It lasted barely longer than the blink of an eye, but I’ll remember it for a lifetime.
Red is 10 years old and has studied Taekwondo with me since he was just barely 3. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. In all the years he’s been my student, I can count on one hand the number of times he’s smiled or looked me in the eye.
This weekend, Red competed in his first Brazilian jiu jitsu tournament. He’s only been studying jiu jitsu for a few months, so you would think that just signing up and showing up to the tournament venue would have been astoundingly courageous.
But wait. There’s more.
• Breakthrough No. 1: Some kids with Asperger’s syndrome don’t typically like physical affection or contact, so just rolling in close proximity with another human being is a big deal for Red.
• Breakthrough No. 2: Kids with Asperger’s also don’t like change. Red stepped WAY outside his comfort zone by competing in front of a big crowd in a venue he’d never seen against an opponent he’d never met.
• Breakthrough No. 3: Because there weren’t competitors the same age, belt, and weight, Red had three choices: take the medal without bowing onto the mat, roll with someone his age and weight but who holds a higher rank, or roll with an older competitor of his belt rank. He chose the latter. Red rolled with a 14-year-old—and lost.
He cried after the match. (Many competitors young and old wept that day.) But an hour later, he was ready to get back on the mat, practice harder, and compete again at the next tournament. Still amazingly brave in my book.
But wait. There’s more.
As the family gathered their belongings to leave the tournament venue, I stopped to chat with Red.
“You know, I was talking to your jiu jitsu coach earlier,” I said, “and he invited me to come train with him. I think I might do that. Do you know why?”
Red looked me in the eye for a split second (an eternity for kids with Asperger’s).
“Why?” Red asked.
“You’re my inspiration.”
“I am?” he said, looking me in the eye for another split second.
“Yes! What you did today inspired me.”
“It did?” he said, giving me another drive-by glance.
“I gotta tell ya, jiu jitsu is a tough sport, and I want some of what jiu jitsu has given you.”
He looked me in the eye again for a split second and then did something even more remarkable: He smiled.
“Thanks,” he said, quickly returning to his usual deadpan demeanor.
“No, sir,” I replied. “Thank you.”
I’ve been teaching martial arts for almost 14 years now. Been training for 22 years in a lot of different styles. I’ve seen all sorts of transformations and have decided that this is one of the many truths I’ve learned from my training:
If you’re lucky, as a teacher you inspire your students to do great things—sometimes things you couldn’t do when you were their age. They are better than you. And that’s a good thing. If you are even luckier, your students will inspire their peers to work hard and overcome obstacles. But if you are really, really lucky, your students inspire you.
I’m so lucky today.