Please in Japanese and Other Benefits of Karate

“He got put off the mat twice.”

This was the report from my mother-in-law, Sandy.  She had taken the boys to their second karate lesson because I had a doctor’s appointment.

At the first lesson, Liam bounced up and down almost constantly.  A boy obsessed with Ninja Turtles, Liam could not contain his excitement to be learning what he considered “real ninja moves.”  Kellen wasn’t even supposed to be taking the class since it was aimed at four year olds.  Kellen is a few months shy of three.  But he saw his brother run onto the mat and he would not be deterred.

The sensei is big guy with a commanding presence.  He could be considered intimidating until he starts talking.  His polite nature and friendly demeanor cannot be denied.  I’m pretty sure just about everyone likes Sensei John.

Sensei is kind with the kids, but firm.  During the first lesson, he explained to he kids that while they are there to have fun, they are also there to learn.  If they are disrupting class, they cannot be on the mat.  He issued pleasant reminders as the little boys got lost in their joy and began running around and talking over him.

The next class, he showed that he meant business.  Sandy recounted the session for me, telling me Liam had received a couple of warnings, but continued to bounce and talk and disrupt.  Sensei politely told him he needed to step off the mat for a few minutes.  He did, without tears or protests.  I was proud to hear he took the consequence.

I asked him how he felt about the incident.

“It made me sad.  It looked like they were having a lot of fun,” he told me.  I talked to him about the expectations of being in the class and how he needed to listen more.  Inwardly, I questioned whether he could focus his energy and attention.

As I study to become an elementary school teacher, one mantra that is often repeated is that great teachers believe all students can learn and have high expectations of their students.  To be honest, I struggle with this facet of the job- not in a way that I don’t believe in my students or children.  It’s more that I empathize with them too much.  I know that Liam is bouncing because learning karate is possibly the thing he desires more than anything else in the world.  Having his wish come true can be too much to contain.

During the “off the mat” recount, Liam advised that Kellen had been put off the mat as well.  Sandy said “I’ll tell you about that later.”

In private, she explained that Kellen had not gotten into trouble.  He simply identifies with Liam so strongly, that when Liam sat off the mat, so did he.  One of the challenges of raising a second child is finding opportunities for him to lead.  From the start, Kellen has had an older brother to model how to do things.  This can be a great learning tool, but also becomes a habit of what Liam does, Kellen does.

I was curious and mildly nervous to see what the next session would bring.  We arrived early- we had been late to the first session and I didn’t want to do that again.  I know tardiness is a disruption to the class.  The boys had Sensei John all to themselves for a few minutes.  They got to show him some of their own moves they had been working on and tell him about their week.  I hadn’t planned this as a tactic, but I think this small bit of personal attention got some of that excitement out of their systems.

Sensei spent some of the lesson showing the kids how to bow as they entered and exited both the dojo and the mat, and to bow to their teacher and partners.  He explained it as a way of saying “please” and “thank you.”  I thought he was showing them appropriate behavior for karate lesson, but later he explained the importance of good manners at home and everywhere else.

I don’t know if it is something about him specifically, or if it is because he is teaching something they are interested in, but the boys listened to him in a way that I rarely enjoy the privilege of.  Perhaps some of it is having a fresh perspective.  When one of my boys yells “I want milk,” I reply “how do you ask for that?”  I get the obligatory annoyed “PLEASE may I have some milk?”  Sensei John also advised the appropriate way to ask for things, but he put a fun twist on it.  He taught the kids to say please in Japanese and joked about how puzzled their parents would be when they heard them speak a foreign language.

At one point, I noticed Kellen trying to tickle other kids as they waited in line for their turn to throw some kicks.  When the kids did not respond to his tickles, he started hitting them- not hard and not in a mean way, but it was definitely not appropriate behavior.

I struggled with how to handle it.  Do I tell Kellen to stop?  Do I let the teacher handle it?  I noticed I was clenching my fists and watching a little too intently.  It was one of those moments where you  talk to yourself internally and then wonder if you actually said something out loud.  Maybe Kellen wasn’t the only one identifying with a family member a little too much.  This karate stuff might be a good way for me to loosen the reigns a bit and let them figure out their own places in the class.

Liam wasn’t perfect, but I could see he was really making an effort to listen to the teacher.  It didn’t burst his bubble of excitement to pay attention and focus.  When the teacher praised him for patiently waiting his turn, he beamed with pride.  By shielding him from hurt or failure, I wasn’t giving him a chance to succeed.

Whether they are just having fun, or whether there are greater life lessons being taught, one thing is clear- they love it.  When I tell Liam he has to get ready for school each morning, he hopefully asks “karate school?”  At Wednesday evening dinner, they can’t wait to tell their dad what they learned in class.  Just the fact that they enjoy it makes it worthwhile to me, but if I happen to get a “please” in Japanese, I’ll take that too.

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