“Okay… we’re going to do something fun tonight,” Siheng Chris said to the unusually small mid-week class standing in a single-file line in front of the office.
I smiled a little too broadly at the half dozen white and yellow sash students, hoping that the drill Chris had planned for them would in fact be enjoyable. With about twenty-five years of martial arts training under his belt, Chris considers many exercises fun that a bunch of primary school students would likely classify as hard labor. On behalf of the children, I inwardly braced for impact.
“We’re going to do flying sidekicks.”
No one made a sound. But the student at the front of the line, a small, quiet nine-year-old who was one of the newest in the school, started to slowly move backward. He’d taken a couple of steps past the yellow sash behind him when I alerted him that he wasn’t invisible.
“Don’t go stepping back,” I said smiling. “It’s okay if you’re in the front of the line. Everyone here is learning this technique.”
“Yeah, don’t go to the back of the line;” Siheng Chris added, “Just stay right there. That’s good,” he said, positioning him third in line. Siheng then demonstrated what he wanted them to copy. “Left, right, left, jump. Be sure to turn your body sideways and lift your knee the way you would for a standing sidekick. You don’t have to do the kick right now. I just want you to practice the jump.”
From the back of the room, as I continued to stretch for the class I was assisting, I watched the first two in line do the assigned task with a small measure of confidence. They were yellow sashes who’d done the technique before; they both threw in the kick, even though all they’d been told to do was jump. Then came the brand new white sash.
He took the necessary running steps but instead of just jumping to prepare for the kick, he tried to copy the preceding classmates and execute it. When his legs appeared in the air, they were bent, pointing in near opposite directions, with one extended farther than the other and ninety degrees off course. The impending landing looked potentially painful. His feet were reacquainted with the floor much louder than one would expect from a body so small, and he stumbled slightly to regain proper footing. As he turned and walked back to the line, he bowed his head so low I could see nothing of his face. He came toward me with only the top of his black hair leading the way. I immediately tried to reassure him and lighten his mood in one fell swoop.
“Hey! It’s okay. That was a good try. You’ve got nothing to hang your head over. Besides,” I threw in as he walked past me with his eyes finally visible, “there’s no head hanging in kung fu.” Sijeh Stephanie got the joke immediately and laughed with me, but of course the child I was talking to wasn’t even alive when Tom Hanks made a similar line famous. He simply offered a weak smile and took his next turn practicing the jump.
As I watched him tentatively undertake his next repetition, I remember the day I learned the same move. I was at least as awkward at first go as he was. The flying sidekick wasn’t the first technique I did incorrectly, but it was the first one that made me feel like I should leave the whole martial arts endeavor to younger generations. It was a technique that smacked me in the face with my own lack of athletic coordination. The only one that smacked me harder was the tornado kick. At that I wasn’t just uncoordinated at first teaching, I was outright inept. So I knew what it was like to look weird in public with no place to hide, to be comical when I wasn’t going for the laugh. It was anything but fun.
As the chagrined white sash made his return to the line for his third go at his assignment, I wanted to reach out and grab him into a bear hug and tell him: “You’re going to get better. Don’t worry. I promise!” But that would have been inappropriate and not at all kung fu like. So I just threw him a smile and returned to my stretching, remembering not to hang my head.