Lessons From My Students

There’s a lot to be said for the wise Sensei motif, but any teacher worth their classroom will tell you that the exchange of knowledge goes both ways. I have heard wisdom from the mouths of toddlers, and utter tedium from boring-ass grown-ups. This list is open to future edits as my teaching career continues.

Still knowing what’s cool (without even trying)

How do I even know what a dab is? After all, Vine is dead, I deleted instagram off my phone and Snapchat is just a charming waste of time. (Also, I get it – people are really into filters, but not even anime girls look cute with dog ears.)

People who pay taxes and recycle tend not to be up to date on the memes and fads that have all the use and lifespan of a mayfly. All I know, usually, is that once a meme makes it onto a t-shirt you can buy at Mr Price, it has completed its life cycle. Man-child t-shirts are the graveyard of funny ideas.

But when you’re trying to demonstrate a move and one of the kids shrieks “Oh my god, that’s like a dab!” and then proceeds to ruin a kata with it, it becomes unforgettable.

Homework can wait – there’s a world out there to explore

As a child, I was the polar opposite of Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes fame. I was Suzie – dutiful, patient and mostly indoors and clean. And despite the fact that the schools are trying to crush the kids with hours and hours of homework, they are still rebellious. Sure, homework has its place, but why do third graders have several hours of homework now? Of course they should be angry that they’re being kept indoors on a beautiful day to do unnecessary work that should have been covered in class. (Sorry, school teachers – I know it’s not your fault, the system is broken and we are all suffering for it.)

I may have been one of those kids that always did my homework, and always got my work in on time, but you know, I wish I had maybe had more adventures along the way, especially in high school and university.

This is why we don’t assign homework in the dojo. The kids get plenty of that at school, and when they’re older, they’ll want to do that little bit extra. But until then, we’ll train outside and take group pictures under the dojo’s cherry blossoms.

How to make and keep friends

I feel like adults are really, really shitty about friendships in a way that kids just aren’t. Kids don’t bail on each other at the last minute with the tired old phrase “Hey, something’s come up, can I take a rain check?” Or that most bullshit of excuses “I’m tired.”

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I get it – I’m tired, you’re tired, we’re all tired, but as adults, it’s the equivalent of saying “the dog ate my homework.” 

Kids will nag their parents for sleepovers. They’ll want to spend all their time with their new friends. They will do the randomest shit together, and be happy to muck around doing nothing. But trying to get some grown-ups to sit around a table for coffee? It’s like herding cats on meth. Kids are so, so excited to see their friends. and to spend time with them. When did we lose that? As adults, we have our own transport, and money, and maybe time. And we are the first to complain that “we never see each other” but no one makes the damned effort. “It’s been so long!” we cry, when we finally, finally grab lunch with someone, but kids? Seeing each other at school every day isn’t enough. They need weekends and holidays too.

When did we stop being happy to see our friends? Is it because we’re jealous when their lives hit a great trajectory? Is it because it’s so easy not to make the effort? Is it because real friendship requires vulnerability and investment? And then when the midden hits the windmill, we realise that we haven’t got the same connections we used to have.

Kids live for friendship, and once upon a time, we did too. If that’s one thing I take from them and implement into my life, then I consider it a beautiful lesson.

A Day in the Life of a Sensei

Morning:
“Ah! What a beautiful day! I think I’ll go and train and -”
*phone starts vibrating*

And then pour in the Whatsapps.

What time is the grading next week? When are the dojo shirts arriving? Suzy Q has gymnastics/maths/chess trials today and will miss karate later. My account looks wrong – are you sure you can add properly? Have you spoken to my child yet about the bullying at school? What time is the training seminar? I know its for black belts, but maybe my kid can come anyway? Is it holiday hours yet? What’s happening with the tournament? Any chance you could do private classes, but for like, free?

Ping, ping, ping. Then various whatsapp groups for parents and students start blowing up because someone shared something utterly idiotic they saw on Facebook, which is usually kind of racist and awkward. Apologies are made, rebukes issued and with a sigh, the phone is set aside for the moment.

Day adequately derailed, the Sensei decides to check in on email, sees four million emails regarding team selections, federation meetings, gashuku arrangements and offers from shady martial arts gear companies promising good prices. There’s an email chain with far too many people CC’d in, and some people still haven’t learned basic email etiquette despite being old enough to pay tax. There isn’t enough coffee to deal with this inbox right now, so the Sensei decides to catch up on old school paperwork.

But where to start? Updating the student database? Filing the medical info cards? Sending out accounts? Then chasing accounts that remain unpaid for no clear reason? There’s newsletters to be printed, grading certificates to be signed, testimonial letters to be written. There’s events to organise, forms to collate, merchandise to be ordered, and and and and and — oh god, is that a sneeze, but I got my flu vaccination and and and —

Well, at least, that’s how it feels.

Every dojo is different. Every dojo has its own challenges and offerings. The bigger the dojo, the greater the admin. Some instructors have to work full time jobs and then still teach at night. Those of us who are lucky enough to do it on a full-time basis sometimes miss out on the normal things other people take for granted. Weekends, for example. Some of us are studying, working and teaching. I’ve juggled a counselling course, freelance writing and teaching this year. I know instructors who work at schools, hopping from one to the other, driving all day. Some are just trying to get a foot in the door, just starting out in a tiny dojo with no equipment but with so much heart and passion that they don’t charge a fee that’s fair to them as well. The starving artist trope extends to martial artists as well, as unfair and unnecessary as it is.

And it can be a good kind of busy, when you’re doing it right, and for the right kind of reasons. I love being a daywalker – my day is flexible, until roughly 3pm, when it’s time to prep for class, have that last cup of coffee (and a chocolate) and then teach for four to five hours. I sleep in a bit (because I hate mornings) and at least when I do admin at my desk, no one can tell me that a unicorn onesie is inappropriate workwear.

Of course it’s stressful – we are always worrying about litigious parents, bills, this student’s progress, that one’s troubles at home. We try to keep our qualifications current, and pay huge money to go train with our seniors to keep our skills honed. Never mind the cost of a grading in whichever home dojo we belong to overseas, which can easily cost a couple hundred dollars a pop, just for the certification. Never mind the plane trip and somewhere to sleep that isn’t a bench.

A Sensei is so many things – janitor, nurse, counsellor, accountant, career guidance coach, wailing wall, mentor, caterer, event manager, teacher and role model. Even when we don’t want to be, we are always in a gi. We are always aware of our actions, for the smallest misconstrued comment can blow up, and any lapse in judgement can bring the mobs down upon our dojo. Whatsapp statuses must be carefully written, personal Facebook posts reconsidered. It becomes a habit after a while, this careful self-policing, but there are days when I really would like to use that sweary image as my whatsapp avatar.

Our students often look to us for a good example, and there are days when I sometimes lie on the couch and see if I can catch popcorn with my mouth forty times in a row, and I’ll do this for an hour. I’m not always the shining example of adulthood that my students perceive me to be (although I’m not sure anyone is).

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But when the kids come barrelling into the dojo, so excited to train and be on the mat, shouting over each other and basically carrying on like labrador puppies on a sugar high, it all melts away. The drama, the politics, the admin, the fears, the anxieties. I could be in the blackest, foulest mood, (and I often am when I am hangry around 3pm) but the minute they arrive, it all makes sense.  

It’s amazing, when you think about all the things an instructor has to do, just to be able keep teaching your little one how to do a face block. After all, that which gives light must endure burning, and everything I do is for the students, because without them then I really am just a karate bum.

So, please be patient with us when we don’t respond to your text at 11:30pm about something that really could wait until tomorrow morning. It might seem like we have easy lives, because “you only teach for four hours”, but there are mountains and mountains of invisible work that go into what we do, and yes, we do lie awake at night and worry about our students too.

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Late Bloomers Welcome

I got an email from a possible student the other day, asking if we offered adult classes, or if we would be willing to accommodate a 45 year old. I get messages like this all the time – parents and grandparents who want to either join their kid on the mat, or find something to do now that the children have all grown up and gone. Sometimes, it’s picking up where they left off thirty years ago, always plagued by the regret of quitting. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me they wish they hadn’t quit as a kid, I’d be able to buy a shiny, fancy new gi.

Always that question: is it too late for me to start?

I always say, never. 

If you want your child to become national champion, then yes, they have to live it from when they are four or five. You also have to hope that they are freakishly gifted in strength, agility and speed. (But that’s a blogpost for another time.) Otherwise? It doesn’t matter when we start – what matters is that we stay. 

While the majority of my students are under 16, we are fortunate enough to have a thriving adult class of 30, when everyone is on the mat. The oldest student is 67. There is a grandmother aged 62, who trains consistently and with great humility and a smile. She’s properly awesome, and rightfully inspiring.

But this is the hard part for us – keeping adult students interested. The sheer demands on our time – work, family, health – make finding a couple of hours a week a challenge sometimes. In Joburg, there are literally hundreds of dojos, but anyone in a small town will struggle to find one close enough. Even then, proximity isn’t enough, because a dojo should be good. A dojo should be accommodating without sacrificing the integrity of the syllabus.

Adults have different fears; they’re afraid of falling, of not knowing everything, the risk of injury, of not being up to standard. Adults don’t like to work in close proximity with each other, and many feel exceptionally limited by their bodies. And as I’ve written before, the more classes a student misses, the harder it is to come back.

But the important thing is the trying – the participation. Joining in and doing your best is all that ever really matters. Only instructors and professional martial artists have to care about a hundred possible bunkai. Only instructors have to immerse themselves in history, in hardcore training regimes, in endless weekends given up to seminars, gradings and tournaments.

But you, the adult student? All we ask is that you try to attend class whenever possible, and that when you are on the mat, you learn to trust the process. If you’re free and willing to help out, then great! We would love that. But if not? Well, life isn’t all burritos and naps.

I myself started ‘late’ – while I did do judo in primary school for four years, I took a long sabbatical during high school and my gap year. I started up again when I was 19, and only started taking my training seriously in my second year. I never really planned to be an instructor – that only occurred to me about four years ago. But the advantage of starting as an adult was that I already had the necessary focus and experience to fully enjoy my martial arts. Some start too early, hit a plateau while waiting for black belt, and quit. Some kids burn out. Some teens, incandescent with talent, quit because their friends make fun of them, or because their parents want them to focus on their studies.

But you, the adult student? You may have commitments, but you also have more control over your time. You probably don’t have to spend your evenings doing homework. Your Saturday mornings are yours, no longer tyrannised by school commitments. You have the patience to train slowly and steadily. You are less likely to need the external motivation of the next belt.

So why not start? Why not try something new? Meet new people, discover new things. Get stronger, enjoy more focus. The internet is full of wonderful stories of people finding just the right dojo. My life is on a very special path because of one little dojo hidden in a university. Try a bunch of styles. Go to a few free classes. If your gut warns you, then try another dojo. (And if they ask for six months’ fees in advance, then best you run screaming. That dojo is failing.)

May you find the dojo and style that gels with you – remember, there is no perfect or best style. There is only the style that you enjoy, and that you stick with. The rest is decoration.

Real Futureproofing

We get it, parents: you are trying to make sure your child, the centre of your universe, your precious genetic legacy, is going to handle whatever the future can throw at them. We see it in the extra classes they do, the vast number of extra-curricular activities. We see it in their burdensome homework schedules, in their weekends packed with events and commitments. You are doing everything in your power to make sure that they can meet whatever challenges the future holds. We don’t blame you.

Of course, it doesn’t help that schools are adding the burden, promising to grant access to the most exclusive universities through a punishing regime of academics, sports and extracurriculars. Everyone with the means is trying to make their kid futureproof.

But honestly? How do you know what the future looks like? Does anybody?

I used to be a social media manager, a job unheard of when I matriculated. I tried to explain digital content marketing to my Yiayia, and eventually gave up, because how do you explain something that only makes sense to annoying power-yuppies who work in advertising? When I chose my subjects at school, at university, I never thought for a moment that I’d end up being a karate instructor. I just stuck with what I loved, and it worked out for me.

There are jobs that are being invented right now that will be antiquated in 15, 20 years. Some are predicting that humans need not apply, as many jobs will be outsourced to robots and drones. While it should free us to pursue our dreams and enjoy leisure, capitalism ensures that it will not. (Booo, capitalism!)

However, this isn’t really a discussion about AI and job replacement. My point is (and I do have one) is that by overloading our kids with stress, accolade-chasing and a shallow knowledge of many things but no time to develop true passion, we are only burning them out before they can find out who they are. Which brings me around to the reason I wrote this.

Kids get put in a dojo “because they need discipline”, or “because [vomit] a black belt will get them into university”. While we cannot do all the discipline work, and yes, a black belt looks nice on a university application, this isn’t the point. Dojos are being pushed to become grading mills, lest they lose students to the other activities competing for their time. We lose students because parents are not seeing ‘progress’ fast enough. Kids complain its too hard, and parents let them quit just when they were starting to show progress. (If I had ten bucks for every time I’ve heard ‘I wish I hadn’t quit karate when I was a kid’…) When they don’t see their child cracking a shodan in five years, they pack up and go. And yes, there are dojos who will hand out gradings like birdseed and devalue the entire point of it all.

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They know who they are

But if you really want to futureproof your child, maybe teaching them that good things come to those who work is a better bet. By letting them quit as soon as the going gets tough, they don’t learn to stick anything out. The dojo should teach them patience, resilience, humility, confidence and compassion. We try to teach kids to learn to work on their own, and to work with others. We teach them the value of listening, of doing the boring grunt work that is part of any achievement. When everything around them tells them that success is glamorous and easy and sexy, the dojo reminds them that progress is often boring and success is not guaranteed. That they will fail, and they will have to learn to dig themselves out of the dirt repeatedly.

And yes, sometimes training will be so tedious. Oh my god, there are days when I want to die from boredom because it’s drill after drill on my own of the same stepping sequence. But like any subject, there will be boring days. Like any career, or ambition, there will be many times when the glorious achievements and progress will be preceded by doing stuff you don’t want to do. Just as there will be days where something bright and precious is uncovered, and becomes your own, forever.

Skills wax and wane in their demand and value. Now we have too many lawyers, and not enough nurses. Accountants will soon be replaced by a few lines of code. What is fashionable to study now will be the white elephant degree of the future. Think of all the MBAs who couldn’t become CEOs. But some things are eternal: hard work, ethical conduct, courage, humility and determination.

These are the things machines cannot replace.

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Banned Book Week

Censorship says more about the people that ban the books than the authors that wrote them. According to the American Library Association, challenges are recorded and tallied, and they have provided us with a fascinating list of the top ten books that have been removed from libraries over the last ten years. While many of the titles are perenially banned and unbanned (Huckleberry Finn, The Colour Purple, The Catcher in The Rye) I am always surprised at which books do get labelled as foul and disgusting and all sorts of colourful pejoratives.

Amongst these titles, there some I would censure only for their terrible writing,

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

like Twilight and Gossip Girl, but I wouldn’t demand they be pulled from shelves. I don’t think that all young girls will look to the main female characters in such books and think “I wish I could be vapid and loved only for how I look!”, and I know many sensible and clever teens who see Twilight for what it is, and isn’t. What it definitely isn’t is subversive. As I have mentioned before, it is so dreadfully, boringly mainstream. How it gets lumped in the same category as Catcher in the Rye escapes me. As far as subversive goes, I’d rather push for Fight Club (actually, anything by Paulahniuk).

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Of course, some books will get banned just because they aren’t white enough, not complying to the status quo of ‘white people know and do best’: worth noting in this category are titles like Beloved (One of my personal top 10 favourites) and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.  I am surprised that Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses isn’t on that list, though I still believe it is his finest work and one of the best ever produced for its vast storytelling ability and brilliant handling of issues so mutli-faceted as to resemble a prism in a sunburst. Unfortunately, too many people think its evil and anti-Islam, an argument that is as specious as it is insulting. And, sadly, always offered by people who haven’t read the book. But I take hope in the fact that books by leading atheists and scientists are not on that list either. To be fair though, the ALA offers this disclaimer:

A challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness. The number of challenges reflects only incidents reported. We estimate that for every reported challenge, four or five remain unreported. Therefore, we do not claim comprehensiveness in recording challenges.

I suspect this is why a great deal of truly controversial books are not on their list.

The Female Eunuch

I still believe in students, especially this one, who is running an illegal library out of her locker to counter the draconian rules of her school. (If she were my daughter, I would consider myself the most successful parent possible.) I truly believe that there are so many kids out there desperate for knowledge and stories, and as long as ill-informed teachers and librarians hide away great books, they will not have access to literature that challenges the status quo. I have always believed in the power of books to change and grow minds, and books have always been my teachers. And sometimes banning a book does great things for its power. Consider the popularity of Germaine Greer’s wonderful Female Eunuch, a book so infamous in its heyday that women had to buy it in brown paper bags under the counter. (That was 1970. Really not that long ago, when you think about it.)

Subversive?

Unfortunately not everyone can get around bans, so I would prefer they didn’t happen. And it could be said that books like Mein Kampf should be banned lest they influence further evil, but by being able to analyse what motivated such a crazy, evil man, we might better understand what caused his rise and rise. Also, once we start banning two or three books, it isn’t long before anything remotely objectionable gets banned. Sitting on this side of dead apartheid, book banning has a particularly ugly (and darkly amusing) history here. Considering  it was a system so ridiculous as to ban Black Beauty based on the title as well as the delightful Monty Python’s Life of Brian, it is a neat insight into some the things the apartheid government feared most: black people and religious irreverence. And perhaps really big horses.