“Her mom says she needs a little positive reinforcement.” He looked at me like I was speaking in Greek. “You know how it is, when you’re the same sash color for longer than average and you start feeling like you’ll never move up, because you do everything wrong… you know.” He finally blinked.
“Well, you know how to get over that?” he asked with an undercurrent of sarcasm.
“Yeah, I know, do a better job.”
“But sometimes it’s like a catch-22: you keep hearing that you’re not doing well, so you lose your enthusiasm, and you don’t try so hard, so you get worse – and then you never stop hearing that you’re not doing it well. Come on. Just a compliment or two. She feels like she’s being picked on.”
I knew that feeling well. It’s where I lived when I first started learning Shaolin Fist, and that picked-on feeling stayed with me each time I got a correction from the instructor who taught me most of that form. That relationship has long since changed for the better, but the memory of being in the same place as the eleven-year-old girl in need of positive reinforcement was vivid.
I needed Siheng to find his empathy, for her sake. Even I had once told him with a small measure of pain in my voice, back when I was testing for black sash: “Just once, can you start your critique of my form by telling me what you liked?” It brought him up short at the time, and it did again Monday night.
“I hear what you’re saying, but I guess that’s just not the kind of person I am. I mean, coming up in a Chinese family, that’s not what you get. You bring home an A- and they want to know why it’s not an A,” he said with a chuckle.
“Yeah. Some black folks are like that, too,” I answered, remembering what was expected of me – particularly by a father who could only appreciate academic success. Other accomplishments were nice but ultimately just decoration on the only part of the package that mattered. It often felt like the exclusive reason to have children, in his mind, was to give him a great report card to brag about.
My children know I love and appreciate them for a plethora of reasons that have nothing to do with whether they make honor roll, but they’re also annoyed by the tabs I keep on their school work and my insistence that they do their best. To some extent, we all copy the behavior we were raised with. It’s what we know. But once we notice the duplication, we have a duty to assess, I thought, as I watched Siheng look over the requirements card of our student.
Is this learned behavior something I should keep? I try to ask (though, perhaps, not as often as I should). Should I change it entirely? Slightly alter it at appropriate moments?
I hoped Siheng was wondering something similar. I hoped he would suspend how he came up, just for a few minutes, just for the esteem of a long-standing yellow sash hoping so hard to become green.
As luck would have it, he didn’t need to. She gave us her best pre-test performance to date. And we told her so, gleefully…before telling her what she needs to correct.