Boys Will Be Boys

Here is a story about my first experience with martial arts.

As a kid, I got into fights.  I don’t remember the first time I got into a fight, but it was common enough.  By today’s standards of school conduct, I would probably have been suspended or expelled, but growing up in the 70s in upper-middle class suburbia there was still a “boys will be boys” attitude in effect at my school.  Fighting on the playground didn’t result in bigger consequences than loss of a recess period as long as no one got really hurt.  Most of these fights were really just wrestling matches to establish the grade-school pecking order.

I had a temper, and still do really.  I think I inherited it from my dad – who I actually saw get into more than one fight when I was young – always during a softball or basketball game.  With my short fuse, when kids would tease me at school, I could never just let it go.  “Turn the other cheek” was not a concept I’d learned.  I was a small kid, and a little bit chubby, which made me an easy target for bullies.

For me, the two most important bullies in my life were from the time I was in 5th grade.  Andy was a small kid for a 6th grader.  With curly blond hair, fair skin and a slight build he didn’t look like a typical bully.  Even though he was more than a year older than me I probably outweighed him.  However, his friend Patrick was a full head taller than I was and was already entering puberty.  Andy was the mastermind and Patrick was the muscle.  These two picked on me ruthlessly.  They nicknamed me “Little Guy” — even though I was slightly bigger than Andy.  They made up silly rhymes and songs with which to taunt me.  One little song, based on the melody of a popular dog food ad from the time, still sticks in my head.

All my fights as a little kid had turned me into a pretty savvy wrestler and I think I actually enjoyed the sport associated with schoolyard fighting.  I was usually game for a fight.  When Andy and Patrick first started this teasing, I lost my temper pretty quickly and wound up jumping on Andy.  I felt I could take him and really wanted to give him a pounding to shut him up.  However, Patrick came up from behind me, pulled me off and gave me a real thumping.  He was so much bigger and stronger than I was that it really hurt.  I fought back with all I had – no technique on my part, just rage.  This wasn’t kids in a friendly wrestling match to establish dominance.  This was my first real experience with fighting.  I lost.  This repeated itself over, and over and over. It got very old, very quickly.

I’m not sure which hurt more, the teasing or the beatings, but I was enjoying neither. These confrontations with Andy and Patrick became routine and I grew increasingly frustrated.  There seemed to be no help for me.  The boys-will-be-boys code on the playground meant no help from the adults.  My best friend, a warm hearted but gawky kid from the Netherlands named Nick wasn’t a fighter.  In fact, the one time I saw him get into a fight he made a fist with his thumb inside his fist and punched without bending his elbow.  There was no help for me there.

Then it escalated further.  From the time I was very young, I always rode my bike to and from school.  It was only a couple miles and the city streets were side with big bike lanes.  I had a fancy, bright orange 10 speed from Sears that I remember liking quite a bit.  My parents didn’t drive me to school unless it was raining with enough force to start serious discussions about ark building.

One day on my way home, Andy and Patrick got on their own bikes and followed me.  They taunted me, and we yelled back and forth.  Then they started swerving their bikes back and forth making me swerve to avoid them.  Eventually then ran me off the road and then they zoomed off leaving me in a ditch – scraped and scratched.

I got up and rode the rest of the way home.  When my mom saw me she completely lost it.  If my mom has one defining trait it is that she is extremely protective of her family.  This is true when she cares for her own mother (my grandmother) today or when she was taking care of my little sister and I.  She immediately drove me back to school and marched me to the principal’s office.  The principal was a slightly rotund, but very nice man.  He seemed concerned and promised to look into it and “make sure it wouldn’t happen again.”  Despite his good intentions, this was not my last bully confrontation.

When talking to the school administration didn’t fix it, my parents got more concerned and started to try to help.  They gave me anti-bullying techniques they thought would allow me to stop this.  I imagine they got these out of some pop child-rearing book of the time.  The “snappy comeback” was one technique I remember.  When confronted with teasing from the likes of Andy and Patrick I was supposed to verbally joust with them, instead of losing my temper and getting into another fight.  Eventually my mastery of verbal dueling was supposed to humiliate the bullies and have them look for another target.  It didn’t work.

Not giving up, my parents kept at it.  Eventually, they came to me with another proposal.  I should learn to really defend myself so that the bullies would respect me.  There was a Karate class being offered at the local community center and they had signed me up.  I had never taken any kind of martial arts and had no idea what to expect.  This was before the time of the Karate Kid and all the martial arts movies that followed.

I remember that in my 10 year old head it felt like I was being signed up for Summer School because I hadn’t done well in class.  I was being punished and I didn’t like it.  I let it be known that I really didn’t want to take the class.  My parents insisted, but we made an agreement that I only had to try it until I earned my Yellow Belt.  At that point I could make an informed decision about whether to continue.  At that time I resolved that I would hate this experience, no matter how much fun it turned out to be.

Classes took place in small gym at the local community center.  It wasn’t at a real martial arts studio, but the teacher was affiliated with a local Karate school and taught at the community center to recruit.  He would often remind us that when we “graduated” this program we could move to the real dojo and train.

Two evenings a week I’d be dropped at the community center for class.  The style was very traditional Japanese karate.  Straight strikes, blocks and kicks were all we learned – nothing flashy.  We didn’t practice any of the spinning and jumping kicks, tumbling or grappling that kids learn now in modern martial arts classes.  It was repetitive.

Each class started with a stretching warm up and then we’d practice basic techniques.  Attacks included a straight punch, front kick and a side kick.  Defenses included a high-block, low-block and a middle-block.  We did these while marching up and down the length of the gym yelling in unison.  At the end of each class, I’d tell my parents that it was horrible, even though I was starting to enjoy it.  I was such a stubborn kid.

The fact is that this was really fun.  In secret, I’d come home and practice my punches and blocks in front of the mirror.  I felt like a bad ass.  In class the instructor told us that when we signed up to come to the real dojo and train that we’d learn to spar.  Given that I really loved the idea fighting (at least when it was “fair”) this sounded like the most fun a 10-year-old boy could have.

At the end of the session, all the kids and I tested for and received our Yellow Belts.  I was pretty happy.  My parents seemed proud.  At the end of the graduation ceremony, they asked me if I’d like to sign up to take classes at the dojo.  Now I had a dilemma.   I could quit Karate, which I enjoyed, or admit to my parents they were right and I could continue on.  I choose to cut off my nose in order to spite my face.  I told my parents I’d stuck with their plan as agreed, but now I wanted out.  I told them Karate would be boring just as I had known it would be.  Now, please take me home I said and let’s not speak of this again.

I think they were a little dumb founded, but they were true to their word and that was the end of my chances to become a 10-year-old bad ass.

What was your first experience with martial arts?  Did you stick with it, or did you come back to it later in life?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: