When the Student is Ready, the Teacher Appears (How I Got Here, Part 4)

In class, whenever we reach a moment in literature that asks readers to suspend their disbelief (the moment when the scarlet A glows in the sky in The Scarlet Letter, for example, or the description of Pilate’s missing navel in Song of Solomon), I ask my students how many of them would consider themselves superstitious. Usually very few students raise their hands. Then I ask them how many of them can think of an exception to their overall lack of superstition – in other words how many of them would say “I’m not superstitious, BUT…” To this question almost everyone answers in the affirmative, and many students volunteer stories about seeing ghosts, hearing voices from the dead, having certain infallible luck charms, or encountering coincidences that they cannot explain. It seems to me that most people – no matter how modern, skeptical, and secular they are most of the time – have a story of a time in their lives when the world lined up in a way that cannot be explained physically.

And here’s mine.

Every time I make a transition in my life and feel the need to remake myself, I turn to writing (much as I’m doing now, I suppose, with this blog). So on Friday, September 10, 2004 – my first day off after beginning my new job as Director of Residential Life at a boarding school in Idyllwild, CA – I bought a book called Dojo Wisdom for Writers. Its author was both a martial artist and a novelist, and it was filled with lessons she had learned from martial arts that she stretched and contorted into awkward metaphors to describe the way she approached her writing. The hokeyness of this book is testimony to how desperate I was for answers.

After I bought the book, I went to Jiffy Lube for an oil change. As I paged through the book in the waiting area scanning its silly advice, it occurred to me all at once that what I needed was not dojo wisdom for writers (I already had an MFA in fiction writing, for God’s sake) but an actual dojo. The real deal. I asked the woman behind the counter if she had a copy of the Yellow Pages.

“I think there’s one around here somewhere,” she said. “But I’d have to hunt for it and I’m kind of busy. Is it really important?”

“Yes,” I said decisively, not even feeling guilty for imposing.

She found the phone book after a few minutes of searching, and I looked up “Martial Arts.” I jotted down the addresses and phone numbers of a few schools and decided that when my car was ready I would drive around town and see what kinds of classes were available.

The setting of this story is Hemet, California, a town both California-beautiful and poverty-ugly in the foothills of the San Jacinto mountains. It looks like the kind of place where LA mobsters would go to dump bodies. Its main drag, Florida Avenue, is littered with tire places, used car lots, fast food restaurants, businesses that advertising their check cashing services in orange neon, and vacant lots in which palm trees sway like weeds. An Indian jewelry store built in the shape of a giant tepee constantly bears a sign that says GOING OUT OF BUSINESS. It is possible in Hemet to make a left turn and find oneself in Mexico. To the south of town, one finds concrete, flatness, highways leading to cities. To the north, mountains that remain snow-capped almost all year. Follow Florida Avenue uphill for 26 miles and it becomes the main thoroughfare in Idyllwild, the town where I was living. For two weeks each April, Hemet smells like oranges as the groves to the west and north of town blossom into a buzzing ripeness. Uphill from these orange groves is a terraced cactus garden that unfolds into the most beguiling landscape I have ever seen; more than once I barely escaped accidents because I couldn’t stop gazing into the labyrinthine rows of cacti while I drove. Houses burn down a lot in Hemet. Dirty motels brag about their color TV’s. In the mall there is a Sears, a J.C. Penney, an Orange Julius stand, twelve places to get your ears pierced, and a sushi place called Samurai Steve’s.

And the real irony of Hemet is that Samurai Steve’s is GOOD.

I didn’t know the town well yet, but I set out with my list of martial arts schools from the Yellow Pages. At some point, though, I wanted to look at the map in my glove compartment, so I pulled into the parking lot of a small strip mall that contained a Papa John’s Pizza, a dollar store, a furniture warehouse, a Joann’s Fabrics, a yarn store, and several tiny Mexican restaurants. Nestled between the Papa John’s and the dollar store was an almost unmarked store front that, upon closer inspection, did seem to have the words “Tae Kwon Do” stenciled above the door. The plain black lettering reminded me of the way supermarkets used to package generic products when I was a kid, in plain yellow wrapping with the name of the item in black block letters: BEANS, CANNED PEACHES, TOILET PAPER. A few faded reddish decals on the window depicted the silhouettes of martial artists executing complicated kicks. I parked in front and approached the school’s front door.

The man I met when I walked inside looked a little dazed. He was wearing a dark gray martial arts uniform and was in the process of tying on his black belt when I entered. In hindsight, I know that his uniform only looked gray because it had been washed so many times that it had faded from its original black; at the time, though, it seemed to be woven of variegated shades of gray thread. I remember thinking that it looked dusty. It matched the salt-and-pepper quality of its wearer’s hair.

“I’m interested in your classes,” I said to the man when he met me just inside the door. My eyes locked on a banner on the wall that said This is a black belt school. Your goal is to earn your black belt.

“Well, I can tell you about our classes,” he said, “but first I want to show you something.” Then he began to take off his clothes – the first of many surprising things that happened to me within those four walls.

OK, so he didn’t really take off his clothes. All he did was to untie the strings that held his gi together at the waist and slide one arm out. His grizzled chest hair contributed to my overall impression that he was dusty. “Before you sign up,” he said, “you should know that we do things kind of rough around here. Everyone is always nursing some kind of injury or another.” He showed me a series of bruises up and down his right arm, and then he pointed out a long, irregular scar on his shoulder. “I tore my shoulder apart last year,” he said. “Had to have it completely rebuilt. Took three surgeries.”

I wanted to tell him that I had torn my ego apart last year and that my greatest fear was that it would take a whole lot more than three surgeries to rebuild it. But somehow I knew that I didn’t need to say anything. I suppose that when a 28 year-old woman walks into a dojo unannounced in the middle of a sunny Friday afternoon, the instructors in that dojo don’t have to work too hard to figure out what’s up.

I made an appointment to come back in a week, on my next day off, to observe a class and sign a contract. Then I started attending class twice a week, on the only two nights that I didn’t have obligations at work. After a while I schemed to get every other Friday night off. I made excuses to get myself off the mountain on Saturday mornings every three months when the school held promotional testing. Then, over school vacations, I attended class five nights a week – first for one hour a night and later for two hours a night. I started training on my own at home, running and hiking in the woods, doing monumental sets of calisthenics, using the bars in the nearby elementary school playground to stretch my legs into impossible positions. Eventually I was running almost every day – and the fact that I was running in Idyllwild at an altitude of 5,200 feet paid enormous dividends when I was back at the dojo in Hemet. For the first time in my life, I developed a reputation as an athlete.

The instructor I met when I first stopped into the school was Mike. At the time, Mike taught the two beginner classes in the evenings. Frank, the owner of the school and a fifth-degree black belt, taught the children’s classes in the afternoons and often hovered around the perimeter of the room during the adult classes, looking intimidating. Frank was well over six feet tall, with a Marine Corps haircut and dark piercing eyes. Sometimes he ate Chinese food from a cardboard carton while he paced the room correcting stances. Other times he knelt in a corner and polished one of his many swords. Other times he retreated to the back office and talked on the phone, and we could hear him alternately arguing and laughing, always with gusto. Once he stormed out of the office, grabbed his jacket, and said, “That was the fucking police. They need me to go pick up a child molester, AGAIN, and shove him in my trunk and drive him over the Mexican border and take care of him. This fucking government – they don’t give the police the authority to do anything.” A few seconds later, he was burning rubber out of the parking lot in his Mustang and the rest of us were looking at each other, shrugging, and getting on with class, already fairly well accustomed to those sorts of announcements.

Frank had inherited the martial arts school from his own teacher, Master Chang. He had apprenticed himself to Master Chang when he was twelve years old, and from that time on his routine involved running several miles from his home to the dojo before dawn, training with the master until it was time for him to go to school, running to and from school, and then teaching children’s classes all afternoon under Master Chang’s close supervision. As a teenager he was heavily involved both in the martial arts tournament circuit and in the more traditional-style training that the school emphasized. He went straight from high school to being the de facto manager of the school, with Master Chang disappearing more and more into the back office. And then one day Master Chang just disappeared.

“That’s how it’s going to be with me,” Frank would warn us every so often. “One day you’ll show up for class and I’ll just be gone. The place will be boarded up and there won’t be so much as a sign on the window telling you where I’ve gone. It’s better that way. A martial artist shouldn’t form attachments.”

From very early on in my training I got the impression that Frank (and other teachers to a degree, but mostly Frank) was conducting little tests on me. The first test took place when I came to sign my contract and he was explaining the cost of training. I have no proof of this, but I swear that when he first quoted me the cost, he said that enrollment in a year’s worth of classes cost $100 down and then $65 per month. I said that was fine. Then when we had the contract in front of us and he was reviewing the details with me, he said, “And like I said, the cost is $200 down and $65 per month for a year.” I realize that I could have just misheard him – but I thought then and I still think now that he was testing me to see how assertive I was, to see if I would argue with him. And I didn’t. I pretended that I had heard him say $200 the first time and just wrote out my check for that amount.

There were other tests. The contract said that the enrollment fee entitled a person to a free uniform, but Frank did not give me a uniform at that first meeting. When I came to my first class, I wore shorts and a T-shirt. I wondered when Frank (or Mike, who usually taught the adult classes) would give me my uniform. Finally, at the end of my sixth class, I asked Mike about it. “Oh, yeah,” he said. He disappeared into the office and returned with a uniform that had a Post-it on it bearing my name. Again, I have no proof – they could have just forgotten – but I had the impression that they were waiting to see how long it would take for me to ask about it.

I know what you’re thinking. Why would a couple of grown men and serious martial artists spend their time and energy setting up such dinky little tests for someone that, at this stage, they barely knew? I asked myself the same question. There were more tests as time went on, some of which were hardly dinky. By the time summer came and I was training for two hours a night at the dojo and as many hours a week at home, I was programmed to interpret every word Frank uttered as a message of divine import.

My journal for June 22, 2005 reads as follows: Holy shit – TKD. I’ll record the details of the workout first even though they seem pretty trivial after the speech Frank gave at the end of class. Beginner class: 50 jumping jacks, 50 pushups, 75 squats, 50 leglifts. Jump-switch roundhouse moving backwards (for the first time I felt like I got the hang of it, although my right leg is still much stronger and more accurate than my left. For some reason I can do that kick so much better on arm shields than on paddles – seems odd, but it’s very true). Then in the advanced class we did 25 jumping jacks, 25 pushups, 25 leglifts, 25 squats, 2 rounds of hopping roundhouse, and forms. THEN Frank stopped us to give a talk. It rambled all over the place, starting with the fact that we all (it was just A.J., Alex, and me) had the movements of our forms down pretty well but we weren’t executing them as if we were really fighting for our lives. He talked about the way TKD classes in the past never sparred because all training was expected to be all out, so sparring would have been too dangerous. He also said that in the process of becoming a master he’s learned a lot of things that he wishes he could unlearn because they’re so violent and awful, and that at the very top levels of TKD masters have to take blood oaths that they will never use some of their techniques on another person, because it’s better to take a bullet than to do some of the things that they know how to do. He talked a little about healing through qi and how a practitioner of qigong once healed him of an internal injury after a tournament. He talked about the importance of living and fighting completely in the moment – that progression comes from executing every technique as if you were fighting for your life. At this point I thought this was his way of telling me not to come to class so often – that I was shooting for quantity of training hours instead of quality. That may have been part of his purpose, because he did make reference to the naivete of the beginner who wants to know everything right away. At one point, he asked each of us why we came to TKD. I told the very abbreviated story of (School X), about refusing to let my life and sense of self be sucked up by a job ever again. He talked about people who say that they wish they had come to martial arts earlier in their lives and talked about how pointless that is, because we all come to martial arts when we need it and we didn’t come to it earlier in our lives because we didn’t need it then and wouldn’t have gotten anything from it. He said that he hopes we’ll all surpass him. Then he gestured at A.J. and said that he has the best chance at this point of doing so, and then he gestured at me and said, “but you have your maturity. If he had your maturity, he’d be deadly.” It’s hard to know what to make of that. Part of me wants to say that he doesn’t know me well enough to make judgments about my maturity, but of course he covered that too – another part of the speech was about how “fucking psychic or something” martial arts teachers are. The stories were all about his teacher, not about him, but he did say that we should always do what our teachers tell us, no matter how irrelevant their instructions seem, because they have an instinct about their students that should be trusted. He ended by saying, “You all have a lot of potential. I’d like to see it stop being potential.” It was chilling. The part about training as if your life were really in danger was clear; other than that, I’m a little less sure what practical things I can do to change what I’m doing for the better. I can definitely let loose more in sparring – I’ve been thinking a lot about that this week anyway (and reading The Book of Five Rings) and I sort of feel like this is the week I’ll really be able to fight without thinking too much – but who knows.

Just to make the evening memorable, when I left class I saw an entire mountain on fire. I think it’s Morongo Canyon – I actually heard about it on the news in the afternoon but didn’t think much about it until I saw it. Bright orange flames against the black sky – sort of like a visual of the emotional effect of Frank’s speech. I know I’ll get used to forest fires after living here for a couple more years, but for now – wow. I’m all revved up.

Apparently, even after two college degrees in English and four years of Catholic high school I STILL didn’t recognize the burning bush imagery when I was writing this journal entry. But I recognize it now, and I also remember the early morning two or three months into my Tae Kwon Do training when I was dozing in bed after hitting the snooze button on my alarm and a voice (GOD’S VOICE) came to me in a dream and said, “You should be keeping your feet closer together when you do push-ups.” I was disoriented for the rest of the day, smirking and muttering to myself that SOME people get “Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy” while all I get is advice on calisthenics. But then I tried keeping my feet closer together the next time I did push-ups, and it worked. But this whole three-year period in my life, from the afternoon I stepped inside the dojo for the first time for a tour of Mike’s scars to the last time I ever saw the place – which I’ll tell you about in a moment – was a time of sacred transition, not because God (or whoever – I’m a theological skeptic) was talking to me more than usual but because all my nerves were at attention just below the top layer of my skin and, as a result, I was for the first time in my life preternaturally available to listen.

Here’s my journal entry from the next day (a few notes on the cast of characters and other inside references: Jim Whitehead and Skip were my professors in grad school, Dartmouth is my undergraduate college, and the quotation from Deliverance is from the wonderful James Dickey novel, not the movie):

Advanced class: 50 jumping jacks, 50 pushups, 50 leglifts, 50 squats. Combinations on body shields (back kick, jump back kick, back kick, step side kick) and started to learn full turning roundhouse. Beginner class: 180 jumping jacks, 264 pushups, 100 squats, 100 leglifts. Drill and combinations. On the subject of Frank’s speech last night – I think that final statement about potential needing to become something more is the story of my life. I also think that I have walked away from everyone in my life who has ever tried to call me on it. The big one that comes to mind is Jim Whitehead (Frank’s statement last night is just another rendering of “This is the story that is going to make your career – now FIX IT!), but to a degree Dartmouth in general represented a similar challenge that I refused to rise to, and even (my former department chair) does – although I’m aware of the limitations of that analogy. The instructions are always vague. Fix the story. Start showing something more than just potential. They have to be vague, of course, because I’m the only one who can reveal what that something is going to be. Skip used to tell me exactly how to fix a story, and that was why he was the teacher I gravitated toward – but of course it was also the coward’s way out. For now, I all I know is that I am determined not to walk away from this challenge the way I’ve walked away from others. From Deliverance: “I know that I will have to live up to the equipment or this trip will be as sad a joke as everything else.” I don’t know how to demonstrate more than just potential, but the best I can do right now – even if Frank meant some of those undertones about not substituting quantity for quality – is to keep showing up. It’s related to Thoreau’s idea of being present for inspiration when it’s ready to come to you – and chances are I won’t discover this ‘something’ from my couch in Idyllwild. And of course tomorrow is sparring. I’ll have two guiding principles: hands up and just keep moving forward. We’ll see…

Wow. Typing up these journal entries from my kitchen table here in Massachusetts, with my cup of chamomile tea in front of me and my medical leave paperwork in a pile at the other end of the table, is a tough thing to do. Because of course I did walk away. But there’s more story to tell, still.

By the end of 2006, I was frustrated enough with my job that I was actively seeking a new one. I sprained my ankle badly in August of that year and had missed several weeks of training while I recovered, and as the school year progressed I started missing more and more training for job interviews and other commitments related to my job search. I found it harder and harder to resist my aversion to sparring, and I found that I kept making excuses that kept me away from the dojo on Friday nights. I still came as often as possible on the other four weeknights and had even started assistant teaching during some children’s classes. But there were problems: I was starting to get terrible headaches, and when I made the one-hour round trip drive to and from the dojo after dark I found that the headlights and taillights of other cars danced around maddeningly in my peripheral vision, often bringing on a headache or, at the very least, making me want to close my eyes while I was driving for a moment of relief – not a good idea on winding mountain roads. Now, of course, I know that I was already feeling some of the symptoms of my multiple concussions. At the time, though, I didn’t consider that possibility. I just thought I was a wuss.

I left town in early June of 2007. Shortly before I left, I arranged to stop by the Tae Kwon Do school during the first hour of adult class to say goodbye to everyone. The woman who had recently received her black belt and had replaced Mike as the adult-class instructor assured me that she and Frank would be there and promised to let some of the other adult students know that I would be stopping by. I had been so busy wrapping up the school year and packing to move cross country that I hadn’t been down to the school since my test for my third stripe on my red belt in May. I hadn’t done too terribly well at that test. I had known my kicks and forms well enough, but I had become deconditioned over all the months of job hunting and had had trouble getting through all the calisthenics we had been given to do during the test.  I don’t know how it works at other martial arts schools, but at this school we were never actually told whether we passed our tests. One day the instructor would just hand us a new belt and say, “Put it on.” If you never received a new belt, you assumed that you didn’t pass, and once you had been a part of the school for a while you knew better than to ask why. I hadn’t received my stripe, and even though I knew I hadn’t done very well at the test, I was secretly hoping that they would give me my stripe when I stopped by to say goodbye. Traditionally when a student received his third stripe (the last step before becoming officially recommended for the black belt), Frank cut the stripe (which, for all the pomp and circumstance, was just a piece of electrical tape) with a ceremonial sword that had been a gift from Master Chang. I had looked forward to this moment for a long time and thought there was a good chance that Frank would give me the stripe as a goodbye gift in spite of my lukewarm performance at the test.

I pulled into the parking lot in the dying light of a June afternoon – the same parking lot where I had pulled over to check my map almost three years before. By that point I knew the lot so well that I just coasted into my usual parking space on auto-pilot. But something was wrong. First I noticed that the lights in the dojo weren’t on. Then I noticed that the plain black stenciled letters over the door were gone, as were the red decals in the window. I walked up to the storefront and looked in the window, squinting to see through the reflection of the sunset behind me in the window. The punching bags were gone, as were the floor mats, the free weights, the kicking pads and arm shields and water dispenser and the cubbies where we stored our shoes. Even the dry-erase board had been removed from the wall, revealing clean white paint underneath. The banner that said “Your goal is to become a black belt,” the signs on the far wall bearing the tenets of Tae Kwon Do, and the American flag had all disappeared.

It happened just like Frank said – one day he just disappeared. I have no idea what happened. I have tried to search for Frank and others of my instructors and classmates online – no dice. They’re just not there.

The sudden closure of the dojo gave me a lot to think about on my long drive east. Of course I knew by this time how powerful martial arts had been in helping me reclaim my confidence after the disaster of my first job. I didn’t yet know how powerfully it would destroy me as well – how in just six more months the pain from all the bruises would reappear and never go away, how my vision problems and migraines would continue to get worse, and how, five years later, I would be on a medical leave hoping each day for enough energy to read a book, to add a little to my blog, to do my laundry. But the disappearance of the dojo did make me think of the way it appeared so suddenly in my life. It hadn’t been in the phone book (I went back and checked), and it happened to pop up in the very parking lot that I pulled into to check the map. I went back over my memory of that day and remembered the dim light inside the school and the dustiness of everything and imagined that my presence had summoned the school out of some magical state of sleep like a genie in a bottle, waiting for someone to rub the doorknob the right way and wake it up.

Of course I know that martial arts schools don’t just appear and disappear because of the movements I make through the world. The world does not revolve around me. But I warned you – this is the story of the exception to my skeptical worldview. This is the story of the time I deigned to be superstitious.

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3 Responses to When the Student is Ready, the Teacher Appears (How I Got Here, Part 4)

  1. Mary says:

    Spooky. Have you thought about the “boys’ club” element of TKD that might have added to its appeal to you? There were certainly boys’ club elements that appealed to both of us in school, and prompted us to thrive– and we were bitter when those same elements kept us on the outside. Not trying to write an OpEd for Ms.– just pointing out that gender was definitely at work here.

  2. Jill says:

    Sort of spooky. Also, Hemet could be Woodland. I swear, your description of the mall in Hemet was almost exactly the County Fair mall here, including the Orange Julius. No excellent sushi at our mall, though.

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