I lost a friend this summer. It was sudden. It was grim. It was unfair—as if death could be anything else. It made me sad, as it should, and I carry that grief around, as one does. It unexpectedly derailed my writing because somehow everything I did in the studio seemed to be about Bob, and, for a while, I couldn’t bear that. Now, it comforts me. I think it’s time to reflect on why that’s so, and how I became a better teacher of art because my husband became a student of kung fu.
Jim takes kung fu & Linda finds a mentor
When I left town for graduate school, my husband, Jim, took up kung fu. I shouldn’t have been surprised—he’d been attending martial arts panels at science fiction conventions for years—but I was. Jim’s a writer, both of vivid fiction and of crystal-clear technical documentation. He lives in his head. He bruises like a peach. He bumps into stuff a lot and he doesn’t seem to be too concerned about where the edges of things are. I’ve never seen him lose his temper, let alone come to blows. Kung fu?
By the time I came home, Jim had found a new aspect of himself. He was seated in his body in a meaningful way. He had a deeper sense of discipline. He had a lot more bruises. He was better balanced, in many senses of the word, than I had ever known him. Kung fu.
I am, at best, peripheral to the club, but I found time at every Christmas party or grading I attended to seek out the teacher, Sigung Bob. We had a lot to talk about, from the plight of a small business placing ads in the Yellow Pages, to the attention span of eight-year-olds around Hallowe’en. I still don’t know anyone else who runs an art teaching studio; Sigung was the best mentor I could have found. Here are some of the practices of his kung fu club that resonated for me in my own teaching. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to make the analogies.
Push-ups are penance, not punishment
A student who’s late, slow, disrespectful, or makes a mistake is assigned to do push-ups immediately. Like enlightened coaches and trainers everywhere, Sigung stressed that you mustn’t use exercise as punishment. But when students screw up, they not only need feedback but they need a way to make amends. The kung fu club has one standard and no one’s exempt. Everyone does push-ups when they mess up: kids, adults and instructors. After the push-ups are finished, the slate is clean again. No lingering guilt. No harbouring grudges.
Sign in for yourself
Class attendance is an important part of qualifying for promotion to the next sash, so students have to sign in before every class. That leads to a recurring skirmish between parents and teachers at the club. Parents want to help their kids by signing in for them, hanging up their coats, stowing their boots on the shelf. Sigung wouldn’t let them. How will students learn discipline and self-sufficiency if they can’t practise by accepting minor responsibilities?
Never sit down to tie your shoes
Class starts when you walk in the door of the club. Students stand to put on their shoes. They don’t look for a comfy place to sit. They practise keeping their balance.
Respect the club
When students walk onto the training floor of the club, they bow. As they leave the training floor—even to get a drink of water—they turn and bow again. When no one’s watching, they still bow, and every time they do, they demonstrate their respect for the club. The bow is a commitment to the club, to kung fu, to their teachers, and to their own development.
Put full effort into everything
Students run. They run to get into line for drills. They run to get a drink of water on the break. They run to get equipment from their bags. They put full effort into the small tasks around kung fu, not just into the forms and sparring.
Acknowledge your limitations; work to them
Before a grading, students are asked to declare any pre-existing injuries so neither they nor the instructors will cause further harm. On a daily basis, students are expected to push themselves to their limits, but no further. Breaking a wrist doesn’t exempt you from class. It means you get very good at one-armed push-ups.
Kung fu students spend a lot of time in a bent-knees standing posture called “horse stance.” In horse stance, you should be balanced side-to-side, front-to-back, with your butt as low to the ground as you can get it. With practice, you get lower and more stable. When Jim graded for his black sash, he was required to maintain his horse stance while senior club members did their best to destabilize him: shoving, punching, even kicking him soundly in the abdomen.
Students at the club still talk about another grading where, after the participants lined up in horse stance, Sigung told them to drop their stance an inch. Then, to the confusion of many, he sent them all to the floor for push-ups. Back to horse stance; drop the stance an inch. More push-ups. This continued mercilessly, frustratingly, until, when Sigung called for everyone to drop the horse stance an inch, nobody moved. Each of them was already as low as possible—working to their own limits—as they should have been from the beginning.
In sparring, Sigung’s students all wear their safety gear on the outside of their clothes. Yes, an athletic cup looks conspicuous over black pants, but when boys and girls, men and women, novices and senior students all wear visible helmets, mouth guards and pads, nobody’s “too cool” for safety, and forgetfulness is conspicuous. Bonus: nobody has to leave the floor to change.
Get the small things right
Kung fu is a Chinese martial art, and when the Chinese give money, tradition demands that the bills come in a lucky red envelope. Sigung’s students submit their grading fees in red envelopes. Have you tried shopping for red envelopes in a small German-Canadian city?
Evaluate the whole student, not just the grading
When students grade, there’s more being judged than their performance on the day. They’re evaluated on their attendance, their improvement, their discipline, their contribution to the club, their attitude, their willingness to learn. That reassures the student with performance anxiety at a grading, but it’s also a warning to students who save their best effort for when there’s an “audience.” Everything counts.
As kung fu students grow in experience, they expect—and are expected—to contribute to the club in time and energy according to their skills and the needs of the kung fu community. They run a phone tree, organize get-togethers, lead warm-ups, clean up after class, or give public demonstrations. Senior students teach classes, help with gradings, mentor junior students and meet regularly as a leadership team. A kung fu club isn’t just a teacher and students. It is many teachers, many students, growing into a community of dedicated, responsible, co-operative leaders.
Bob Schneider, founder of the Waterloo Kung Fu Academy, died in an accident, June 2006. The paper reported that he had no children. But in the kung fu community, he was Sigung Bob, teacher/grandfather, and to his black sash students he was Sifu, teacher/father. Sigung Bob’s extended family cried, embraced one another, and recognized themselves as his legacy. The black sashes and the leadership team held the club together, teaching and administering the club the way they had done whenever Sigung went on vacation. By autumn, Sifu Dave—who had been Bob Schneider’s student since Dave was in elementary school—emerged as a homegrown successor with the full support of the club. Sigung Bob Schneider built a school that outlives him.
“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”
(And if you wonder how all this relates to teaching art, start teaching. You’ll see.)