Remembering my First Teacher

He was barely qualified, way too young, and behaved like a jerk outside of class. Yet, he started me down a path – I should say, gave me a good start down a path – I’m still traveling more than thirty years later.

My first teacher was a college sophomore who decided to offer a Taekwondo class on campus. I was a student in need of p.e. credit; some of my buddies were taking his class, so I joined. I knew nothing about the serious young man leading the workout. I could see he was fit; his demeanor commanded respect; the workout was challenging, and I loved to practice. That was all that mattered.

A brown belt assistant had the job of teaching etiquette, rituals, and basics. He conveyed a genuine reverence for the art. Both instructor and assistant spoke firmly in low tones, using few words. Practice went on in near silence, save for counting and barked commands. Questions weren’t forbidden, but they were answered curtly; we got the idea that practice should always trump talk.

Outside class, I learned that instructor and assistant had both grown up in Southeast Asia, attended American school, and studied Taekwondo since they were kids, with a Korean master. Mike, the brown belt, told the story that Dave – the black belt – had always been Mr. Perfect at the dojang, the “teacher’s pet,” and when a group of them had taken their last test, everyone but Dave had forgotten one of their lower-rank katas (sound familiar?). Dave was the only one to go away to college with a black belt.

I also came to know that Dave could be loud, crass and foolish outside class. He dressed in garish, attention-getting clothes. (One friend remarked wryly, “Only a black belt could survive wearing bright green polyester pants.”) He drank too much, partied too often, embarrassed his friends with his antics, and fell behind in his schoolwork.

None of this was evident at the gym. When he put on the uniform and tied on that belt, he was a different man: disciplined, focused, reserved. When we bowed into that room, we left the rowdy sophomore outside, and looked up to a leader.

This is one of the best illustrations I know of the power of tradition. The rules and rituals, the old-style etiquette, make it possible for flawed human beings to show their best. Like it or not, know it or not, it protects us against loud mouths, ignorance, arrogance, foolishness, and insult. (Imagine what the world would be like…) It gives us a chance to mature, even (and especially) if we don’t think we need to.

Tradition is like the steel frame of a building. It gives shape and strength to even the flimsiest cloth cover. Over time, the flimsy cloth gets replaced by something stronger.

I don’t know what became of Dave. He taught for less than six months before taking time off from school. My friends and I found a dojo in another style. But that short stint in the college gym made a lasting impression.

Over the years, I’ve seen my share of freshly-minted black belts off to college, and I know just how little they know, what little experience they have. But I also know how much they know, and how much they have to offer and to learn. And I know they have tradition to fall back on. So I always tell them, “Hey, start a class on campus if you have time. You never know whose life you might change.”

Anyone else have an interesting first teacher?

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7 Responses to “Remembering my First Teacher”

  1. […] Traditional reflects about his first martial arts teacher. The rules and rituals, the old-style etiquette, make it possible for flawed human beings to show […]

  2. Your guy sounds like a typical college student, LOL. I too started in a college club- big university actually. The head instructor was a Korean master, hard-ass but with a sense of humor. Many times, though, class would be taught by various college student black belts. Some were conscientious; others made it clear they didn’t want to be teaching and only did it because the boss was making them do it for rank requirements. They would rather just do tournaments, and spar in class, and not have to bother with trying to help us beginners. I guess the lessons were valuable for them, but not always for us.

    • serpentstaff Says:

      Hmmm, the teacher who doesn’t want to work with you- that’s not a good experience. On the other hand, the teacher who wants to instruct you to death isn’t great either. But somehow we all have to learn to be good teachers. Just as the only way to learn control involves (unfortunately) hitting some people too hard, the only way to learn teaching skills is to try them out on real students, and make some mistakes. I can’t think of any other way. Hopefully the students get some flip-side benefits from the mistakes, as they do from the getting hit.

  3. This is my first visit to your blog and I must say I have really enjoyed flitting about your various posts. My first instructor was terrible! Not so much in the McDojo sense but rather, he was a very ambitious, proud instructor who abhorred the idea of teaching me as I was “too small, too weak and too meek”!

    I didn’t learn much from him except how to quit, but in hindsight (and in no small due to the efforts of instructors after him), I learnt the value of perseverance in training.

  4. Nice perspective on your first training experiences. I think about my first teacher pretty often; he was an alcoholic, probably abused his wife, and I found out recently that he is a known Vietnam POW fraud in several states. I have no idea where he is now or what he’s up to, but I credit the skills he taught me with saving my life. Despite his flaws, he was a spirited and skilled Judo teacher, and the hours that I spent taking fall after fall and being tossed around the dojo (sometimes it was just me and him and the whiskey on his breath) conditioned my body to take a spill instinctively, to the point that I survived being thrown out of my car at speed in a nasty auto accident- my body went into a perfect roll out as I hit the pavement. The guy had problems, but there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t recognize the fact that I’m alive and in one piece because of my time with him. I often think about the fact that my “lineage” stars with a very flawed teacher, but the training he left me with has served me well in many ways. I hope he’s doing well and has found a better path than the one he was on.

    • serpentstaff Says:

      Thanks for your story, it’s an important one. I often think about how and when one should draw the line with “flawed teachers.” But it’s important, too, to remember how much we learn from people of all kinds.

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