Category Archives: education

Dead White Guy Favorites

It used to be called the canon – the must-reads of Western literature that allegedly represent the best in creative writing and exploration of the human condition.  At the very least, they represent the books and plays most written about by those who study literature.  These books and their glaring absence from my children’s curriculums weighed heavily on my mind Thursday, after a fantastic kung fu workout in which I realized that I’m much more mentally aware of how to fix what I’m doing wrong in a form than I’m often conscious of.  This incredible “Aha!” moment was juxtaposed to the awakening just an hour earlier that, academically, my kids don’t know nearly as much as I did at each of their ages – at least as far as literature is concerned.

It all started at dinner out with my son earlier this week.  As we scarfed down Polish fare, he asked me to name great books for him.  He hadn’t read any that I mentioned; more disturbingly, he hadn’t heard of a number of them either.  I expressed my concern at the time, but concern turned to a mild form of ire yesterday when discovering that the syllabus for his senior year doesn’t include any canon books either.  Silly me, I thought his teachers would patch up the curriculum in the final year.

My son attends a Jesuit school that’s geared toward providing a better education to children of urban, working class families who can’t afford private school.  Now, I understand that there’s been a move in the last decade or so to get away from caring about the perspective of dead, white men and thereby make reading more appealing to the largely non-white student bodies of most of the public schools in America’s largest urban centers.  However well-intentioned, this move seems to have all but eradicated from those same schools any trace of what used to be required reading no matter where one lived and what one looked like.  If administrators remove from literature curriculums all but a few of the dead white guy favorites, we’re going to end up with a generation who, ten years from now, will immediately recognize and understand any reference to the “ice bucket challenge,” but who won’t have the slightest idea what grandma is talking about when she compares Johnny’s ill-advised pursuit of a person or thing to Ahab’s quest for the great white whale.

I remember as a kid watching a Bugs Bunny episode I’d seen dozens of times, listening to Bugs go into a riff about an apartment number that started with “2B or not 2B; that is the question” and understanding for the very first time that the Hamlet allusion is what made it funny.   Something about that realization felt good, especially since I could go on to finish most of the monologue, at the time.

Does it matter in the grand scheme of things if today’s youth understand literary references?  I can’t answer that.  What I know is this: my children have excellent grades.  But I’m not sure if their grades accurately reflect how much they know.

Not getting the joke may be no big deal.  But not knowing what their grade point averages suggest they should could be huge.


It’s the Little Things

The last couple of days have been filled with little things that make me happy.  Just going home to Connecticut means visiting with aunts, cousins and a cantankerous 95-year-old grandmother that would stop speaking to me if I photographed her at this stage in her life.

It also includes a mandatory visit to the grocery store of my childhood, which happens to be the coolest place on the planet to buy food.  I get a kick out of watching my kids make a beeline for their favorite items in a store that’s enthralled me from the first time I watched the milk go into the half gallon carton we’d later bring home.

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We later enjoyed the comfortable hospitality of the aunt-in-law’s beautiful Brooklyn brownstone.  That was actually not a little thing.  Having a relative with the space to put us all up saved the expense of hotel for four people. Yay!


Come Thursday morning, we were back evaluating colleges in weather that teased us with threats of rain that thankfully never came.  Cloudy-turned-to-sunny is another little thing that makes me happy.

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I had the presence of mind to save my arthritic knees for pounding the pavement farther down the highway in Philadelphia and simply watched my boy wander around the Redmen’s Queens campus from the top of a very large stairway.


After fighting the insanity of New Jersey Turnpike traffic, we arrived fifteen minutes late for the last tour of our trip.  But we managed to catch up with the groups just as they were leaving the auditorium and beginning the walk around the campus.  Perfect timing – a little thing that often feels huge.

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Another traffic battle through Philly’s rush hour brought us home to a water heater hose repair and more than an hour of separating preservable photos from the ones that had to be discarded.  The upside, of course, was a visit with old pictures and warm memories.


Bottom line at the end of a whirlwind trip: it’s the little things that make for life’s big days!

Leaking & Looking

The day started with the hot water heater literally showering boxes of photos in the basement, with a profoundly poor-timed leak.  The four of us were on our way out the door for Aaron’s college visits but delayed the departure to spread dozens of pre-digital memories out on the family room floor.  Here’s hoping the pictures dry well enough to be worth keeping.

Rather than be bogged down with depression over drenched photographs, I spent the day taking dozens more of a child who grew much too fast and is a measly year away from moving on.   He’s still looking for where he’s going next, and we were along for the ride.  Actually, we were the ride.

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The Right Right

The little guy can only keep his balance for about two seconds at a time.  That makes a snap kick hard to execute.  He, like most young children, can’t point his toes, which makes a snap kick potentially painful for him.  He doesn’t level out his thighs when he gets into a horse stance, and he has trouble remembering right from left.  Yet, he is an excellent student.

His eyes stay glued to my hands when we’re doing double straight punches, and I can see him mouthing the numbers I’m calling out to him, as the repetition count grows.  He emphatically announces, “I remember that!” for every technique reviewed from Sunday’s class and quickly demonstrates the accuracy of his recall.  He takes it upon himself to review his knowledge of left from right, sporadically checking with me on which is which: “This one is the right, right?”  Above all, he does every exercise I ask him to do without complaint.  That’s a first for a five-year-old student.

I’m fairly certain that, though he seems to like me just fine, he’s not all that interested in kung fu.  He’s in my class because his father wants to foster some kind of athletic interest in him.  He works hard regardless because he wants to make dad proud.

I can’t teach him the same way I do the ones who want to be there.  I have to switch gears and tactics to keep from losing his attention and his smile.  It’s a challenge I’ve never encountered before.  I wasn’t permitted to care at the guan whether students were having a good time – or, rather, I wasn’t permitted to show that I cared.  But now that the rules are my own, I have to do my best to meet this challenge.  An excellent student deserves no less.

Who Knows?

“You were right!”  If I had a dollar for every moment since moving into my freshman dorm that I had that thought about my mother, I could have a first-class vacation abroad every year.  It’s one of the more painful aspects of her not being around anymore: the inability to give her the satisfaction of hearing that from me.   And of course, what she was most correct about – countless times in any given week – was the simple assertion that I didn’t know everything.

I was very young when it became apparent that I was a pretty good student.  I couldn’t have been more than nine or ten the first time I heard Mom say, “You don’t know everything,” in the low voice that use to indicate her annoyance.  Several years later, in the middle of my frequently-exasperating teens, she flat out yelled it at me.  I remember thinking, I’m ashamed to say, I know more than you do.

Segregation left my mother and countless other African Americans under-educated.  And she didn’t go to college until after I’d gone to graduate school.  So in a purely academic sense, the stellar education she made available to me undoubtedly gave me more book learning, as my grandmother would say, than Mom had back when I graduated from high school.  But then, there was what she learned just by living — which I hadn’t really begun to do.  It didn’t occur to me at the time that her learning was at least as valuable as mine.

Twenty years ago, no one could have convinced me that the older, more experienced, more educated, more attentive and better read I became, the more I’d a) realize how little I actually know and b) find that fact thrilling.  But that is the current state of affairs.

My work with and around a lot of the country’s movers and shakers and my passion for a martial art steeped in a tradition of instructor infallibility often leave me feeling suffocated by the very attitude I’m so happy to have shed.  So today, as an often-exhausted parent and an excited teacher with a new class, I take a moment to celebrate the willingness to be taught, even by those who allegedly know less… and to acknowledge how unbelievably often my mother was right!

Dirty Streets, Clean Hands

I figured out about a dozen years ago that the more I or anyone else is sure about being right, the greater the likelihood of being wrong.  There’s no mathematical equation involved; it’s just a matter of open-mindedness.  It’s a matter of being able to see beyond one’s own point of view long enough or broadly enough to entertain its flaws.

This lesson was many years and emotional bruises in the making.  It had to evolve from a youth of frequently being criticized, through a  young adulthood of constant insistence on my near infallibility, through a lifestyle-changing early motherhood that required I let others be right, because mine and my son’s well-being depended on it.  So for the last twelve to seventeen years, I’ve caught myself learning more and arguing less when one of the top three questions I ask myself in a conflict is: “Am I wrong?”

I’ve asked that several times this week in multiple ways, including right here.  I reached out to the other side of the world to find out from one I was sure would tell me that my side of the street is dirty if, in fact, it is.  And tell me she did.

My side is dirty because it is culturally unacceptable to criticize one’s superior and potentially make him lose face.  It was incumbent upon me, in an East/West cultural clash, to accommodate the customs of his culture when in his school.  So I apologized to him for a second time.

The challenge now is to make my dirty hands matter more to me than his.  Odds are high he hasn’t entertained for a moment whether his side of the street and/or hands are clean.  No.  Correction: he’s certain he’s entirely in the right.  I have to just accept that, and frankly, that’s hard.

It’s hard because he grew up in a major northeastern U.S. city and is every bit as Western as I am when he chooses to be.  It’s hard because the attitudes and behavior of almost every instructor in the building – including the Chinese American ones who are older than Sifu – don’t reflect our leader’s strict philosophy.  The school’s teachers – Sifu’s choices – are casual, communicative, friendly and warm, with very few exceptions.

I don’t understand how the lines are drawn by Sifu or where, but for as long as I’m in his school, I have to accept that they move.  I have to follow the culture… though it appears to be a culture of one.

No Extra Credit

“Where’d you get this?” he asked sternly, trotting over to me just as I started the second set of staff spins in the White Eyebrow form.  The “this” he was referring to was the form itself, the moves that he didn’t know I knew, the self-teaching he was not impressed to find out I’d done.

“From watching other people,” I answered slowly, subconsciously expecting a strike of some sort in my direction, based on the anger clear on his face.

He turned sharply away from me and said, “You know not to rush things.  It makes me less likely to want to work with you on it.  You know that about me,” he added, walking around the bodies spread out on the floor stretching for wushu class.  When he came back to extend the leg of the student on the floor closest to my position, I said:  “You don’t give extra credit, huh?”

“There’s extra credit for what I teach you,” he answered without missing a beat.

He made me wait through most of his wushu class to continue my end of the conversation.  I almost thought he would refuse to hear me before we left.  But I suspect he knew I was at least going to try to say what I needed to say, even if he didn’t want to hear it.  That’s something he knows about me.

“I’m sorry.  You have to know that no disrespect was intended,” I began.  I knew he’d seen me practicing the open of the form months earlier; so I was genuinely caught off guard by his surprise and anger.  I’d never been trying to hide from him that my overachieving gene was fast at work in martial arts as everywhere else.

“I know,” he said, sounding almost pleasant.  “I know that you’re just eager.  And I’ve done that too.  The first day I was a red sash, I walked into class and told my instructor, ‘I know 12 Kicks.’  He was not happy.  And so….”

I appreciated his willingness to make me feel better, to make me less anxious about his anger. The more I thought about it, it was probably no small deal for him to admit that he’d made the same breach of protocol, crossed whatever line it is that exists without explanation.

After a bit more chatter on my part about what I’d been trying to do and why, I finally asked: “Would you rather I have pretended I didn’t know any of it?” I asked, waiting to hear “no” or “of course not.”  What I heard instead was:

“You still don’t know any of it.  That’s what I want you to understand.”

His statement was true but inaccurate.   I nevertheless left it alone.  “Yes, sir,” I answered.  Understood.


Best Behavior

It was the first time he spoke to me to say anything other than a whispered, “Yes, ma’am,” and it was because he was afraid.  For more than six months, I’d been watching him execute roundhouse kicks with the snap, speed and height that would make an upper sash proud.  But he consistently had the direction wrong, pointing them up instead of sideways, requiring me to tell him every Saturday morning, “Turn your hip over.”

Until tonight, I thought he might have a touch of an attitude.  Not one of being openly disrespectful; he was too quiet for that.  He just seemed to have a hint of cockiness, like he didn’t need to bother with corrections.  But tonight he needed all the instruction and assistance he could get.  Unfortunately, he was pre-testing, trying to show a panel of teachers that he could execute the requirements of his sash well enough to test for promotion.  It was a decidedly wrong time to need assistance.

“Sijeh, do I do the green sash form first or white and yellow?” he asked in his usual whisper as he stood next to me waiting to be called to perform.  He made eye contact for only a moment while asking, preferring to look at the table of black sashes about to evaluate him.

“You do the green sash form first,” I answered smiling, touching him lightly on the top of his head.  “Don’t worry; you’ll do fine,” I added.

I watched him do his form several times during the warm up period.  Though he made a few mistakes, he looked pretty good overall.  But when his name was called and he walked to the center of the floor, his head seemed to empty of everything he knew.

Just ten moves into Dragon Fist, he froze, and I had to remind him of the next move.  Two steps later, he froze again.  And again.  By the time he forgot for the fourth time, he wasn’t even waiting for me to show him the next move, he was looking over his shoulder asking me with his eyes to come to his rescue.  I finally had to tell him: “You have to do it yourself; it’s a test.”

I knew when the testing group was called up to the head table that Sifu was going to tell the small, quiet, nerve-racked little boy he would not be eligible for promotion this month.  As I watched the green sash nod at Sifu then silently go stand against the wall, he looked much more mature than his ten years.  No tears traveled down his face, though his eyes were wet; he didn’t frown or even pout.  He looked like an adult who’d just had his feelings hurt by his best friend, and he was trying to find the right words to confront the offender.

This child’s behavior is how we should all act when we have a meltdown on something important to us. This little man is anything but cocky, I thought.

As I talked to him about his nerves, letting him know that I knew he could do the forms just fine, I was moved by his continued stoicism, impressed by his composure and anxious for him to get his second chance.

The Balance

One day was not enough recovery time, after pushing myself as hard as I did Thursday night.  My performance of Lian Huan Tui on Saturday was pitiful.  Everything from the waist down hurt by the time we got to the part of class where we practice forms.  The drills done in the first forty minutes took most of the mojo out of my knees, and I couldn’t do a decent sweep or tornado kick to save my life.  So, lesson learned.  These days, if I’m going to push the lower half of my body to the max, it has to be when I won’t be using it for anything but the long staff form for at least forty-eight hours…maybe even seventy-two.

But the day was still a happy one.  Some readers may remember me writing about Sifu criticizing me for my manner of teaching (12/17/13 post).   I argued then that style of teaching should be left alone, because it’s a personal choice that can play a large part in whether a student enjoys the class.  I still believe that, but the issue turned out not to be all that complicated.  Sifu simply wanted more boot camp, less me.

I can do boot camp; it’s practically in the genes on my father’s side of the family.  But I can also manage to slide in some warmth and humor when not barking directives.  Apparently, I’ve found the balance that makes Sifu happy without taking all the fun out of teaching for me, because on Saturday, Sifu pulled me aside after watching me with the beginners and told me that the way I taught this morning is the way it should be done.

Mission accomplished.  It almost made me forget that I hurt too much to do my own form properly.  Almost. 🙂


I don’t recall ever being told as a child not to talk to strangers.  Perhaps I was, but if so, I’m sure it struck me as a strange directive, and thus, one I would ignore.  After all, the people at the bank of mailboxes who shared the same apartment building as my mother and me would have qualified as strangers.  I didn’t know most of their first names, though their last names were on the mailboxes, but I still saw them often enough that it would have been rude not to speak.  No, I don’t believe I ever was told not to talk to strangers.  But it’s a warning I’ve given my own daughter several times.

I also used to walk home from school, alone, back in the 1970s, in the small suburban town that was thirty or so miles outside of New York City.  My Catholic elementary school was almost a mile from the apartment building I called home, and I was a latchkey kid as young as eight or nine.  My mother had no choice.

But I didn’t let either of my children walk home from school alone until they were twelve.  Even then, for my daughter at least, someone had to be home, and they needed to have a phone for emergencies if someone accosted them during a walk that takes less than half the time that mine did thirty-five year ago.

Children must know that no one can be trusted, that they are not safe, and that any adult they haven’t met before is a potential danger to them that they should guard against.  This is what twenty-first century American children are taught every day, it seems – if not directly, then by osmosis.  How sad for them.  How sad for us all, I’ve often thought, enraged by the times in which we live, times that include danger, fear and caution that all but eliminate any possibility of immediate warmth with a person one barely knows.

I had three brand new students in class tonight, all doing kung fu for the very first time.  One was a six-year-old girl.  During our first break, I began to tell her what a good job she’d been doing following along and paying attention, but three words into my sentence, she flung her arms around my waist and hugged me.  I’m almost as nuts about children as I am about kung fu, so I automatically hugged her back without looking around to see if a parent was primed to sue me or something.  It was one of those moments that makes me happy to be a teacher.  Two minutes earlier she’d told me how the drills we were doing were making her arms hurt – but apparently not enough to keep from hugging me.

At the end of class, after that little first grader hung in through almost twenty lines of walking horse stances (twice as long as one of the young men doing the same drill right next to her), she followed the last bow of the evening with a final impromptu hug for me.  As I watched her run off to the parent or guardian who was speaking with Sifu, I thought: We adults haven’t scared the warmth out of all of them yet. Some know that all new people aren’t strangers to be on guard around.

And that’s perhaps the most important lesson for us all to learn.

Imagine That!

“I think we started a revolution!” said the person who persuaded Sijeh Stephanie to teach me the beginning of the Pa Chi form.  It was the last day of self-training before classes resume with the new year on Thursday, and the place was packed.

There was sanshou in the far end of the room, tai chi in the center, and me with my staff squeezed between the two groups.  My children were on the other end of the floor practicing kicking combinations and the 12 Kicks form, while Siheng B. loosened up his joints doing Xing Yi near the front door.  Downstairs, newly-promoted green sashes were learning sparring techniques on the bags next to my better half, who was doing side kick drills; and wushu folks were doing their thing, contorting their bodies in ways nature couldn’t possibly have intended.

This was the festive, relaxed, but hard-working atmosphere in the building when Sifu walked in the door.  It continued after he went into the office and Siheng B. gave those of us who were there for his Xing Yi lesson on Saturday a few more moves.  It continued when the tai chi folks asked Siheng B. to help them with the 16Step form, as I rested after doing some of my best freehand work in months (thanks to the shot in the back).  It was the perfect atmosphere to ask Sijeh how she’d gotten Siheng Allen to teach her a form that was no longer part of the kung fu curriculum at our school – and to ask that she pass on the knowledge.

“I can’t teach it,” she said quietly.

“Why not?” I asked.

“I’m not allowed to, am I?” she asked looking over her shoulder.

“Sure, you are.  You’re a black sash.”  It wasn’t me who’d answered; someone else was making the case.  “You can teach,” Siheng B. offered.  Now, relying on the opinion of the one who got the Xing Yi flash mob started might not have been the wisest decision with Sifu standing in the office doorway, but that’s exactly what we did.  “Teach it to me, too,” Siheng B. added.  “I’ll teach you Xing Yi and you teach me Pa Chi.”

A free exchange of knowledge among black sashes, imagine that!

Several minutes later, Sijeh left me to practice the first dozen or so moves that she’d taught me, and someone announced that the revolution had been born.  It was as simple as that.

It may die with the holiday season or need to be kept on the down low to survive beyond 2013.  But tonight there was an ever-so-small revolution – and it was the perfect way to end my kung fu year.

An Unsettling Fact

Do all educators need control over their students’ information intake, or is it just certain martial artists that feel that way?  That question has bounced around my head before, but it returned with a vengeance after Saturday’s intoxicating, impromptu lesson in Xing Yi.

This is as it should be, I found myself thinking as I loosened up my legs muscles on my roller before leaving school Saturday.  Learning something new should be as simple as asking.  After all, acquiring knowledge or a new skill is a good thing.  Right? 

Not always.  There’s the potential to have a new skill or form cut short the time and dedication given to the old. At least that’s the theory I once heard suggested.  Part of me wants to be a good little soldier and just accept that theory as truth, but the part of me that has no patience for equivocation just can’t see her way clear, and here’s why.

I’m super conscious – self-conscious even – of looking bad on the floor.  By bad I mean, old, injured, slow, awkward – you get the idea.  I tend to practice everything I know at least once a month, just so I don’t look like a dweeb to a ten-year-old when he asks me to show him the take down move in the Dragon Fist form, for example.

Then, there are the forms I do best, the ones I do in competition.  No black sash in any style or discipline would allow herself to become mediocre at the forms with which she hopes to win a medal in a tournament.  So there’s no chance of ignoring the old in favor of the new under those circumstances.

Here’s the kicker: I am not unique – at least not among the kung fu folks that I call family.  Even the young and healthy ones don’t want to be wrong or look weird when they help an under sash student.  Even those who don’t have the time to compete anymore still perform demonstrations during monthly testing, in front of the family and friends of the testing candidates.  Practicing the old will always be necessary.  It will always be embraced.  There’s no need to withhold the new.  So why do it?  I wish someone would clearly tell me.

I’ve always been the kind of type-A, overachieving multi-tasker who likes to get as much work done in a sitting as possible, and I can’t recall a single teacher I had in secondary school or college who was bothered by my having reading ahead.  I’ve never known an educator displeased with a student wanting to know more. 

This control thing is a martial arts phenomenon – one that may exist only in the school where I train, for all I know.  That’s an unsettling fact that I either have to accept as best I can or come up with a counter strategy, because I don’t want instances like Saturday to be so rare.  I want to be regularly thrilled with learning something new.  And even the part of me that wants to be a good little soldier doesn’t care who knows it.