Osu, or, Cultivating Empathy for My Students

My nephew has what the sensei calls strong spirit.

My nephew has what the sensei calls strong spirit.

Last year I signed my nephew up for beginning karate and started carting him to lessons twice weekly.  And I watched a bit in between grading papers.  It looked interesting.  And kind of difficult.  The sensei was very patient, however, and the nephew responded to instruction and caught on well.  He moved up half a rank (to “white belt with yellow stripe”), and we were suitably impressed.  He moved up to the intermediate class.  And that is when I enrolled for beginning karate.

As a teacher, I’ve always felt that it is important to maintain a strong connection to my role as a learner.  And I’ve completed college courses, but that sort of learning is deep inside my comfort zone.  So I’ve tried to find learning opportunities that push me in different ways.  A few years ago I started playing video games, and while there are always new places to go with that, I’m not regularly pushed into cognitive dissonance at this point.  So I’ve spent the last four months taking karate.  And it is freaking hard for me.

I do not have the natural coordination of many other students.  I am out of shape, sweaty and out of breath with alarming frequency.  The instructors do not cut me slack because I am the old lady in a group of kids.  The kids do not cut me slack, although they are encouraging.  Just when I get the hand motions under control, I am told my stance is all wrong.  I fix that,  then my shoulders are telegraphing the punches.  I fix that, and my feet are pointing the wrong way.  I fix that, and now my hand motions are going wild–again.  Did I mention how freaking hard this is for me?

I think about quitting.  I think about my students–that kid who just can’t seem to remember how to round numbers.  That other kid who hates reading aloud, because she knows (she KNOWS) that she’s the slowest and makes lots of errors.  I so get that, I really do.  And karate is the latest pursuit that keeps the learner’s struggle front and center within me.  I watch the instructors cycle through the class, correcting errors, observing, giving encouragement.

And when I get that hand motion right, and the sensei tells me so, I feel that little rush of victory.  I hang onto that.  I say, “Osu.”  Depending on how you translate, this means different things.  One sensei described osu as perseverance.   I read another interpretation–push and suffer.  In teaching, we might frame it as productive frustration.  I want to teach my students like this.  Push, struggle, make a small victory, use it to fuel that next push.

My first belt test is coming up in a week or two, and I am nervous.  Deeply nervous.  I have tried to be the best learner I know how to be, but it may not be enough to pass.  What if I fail?  Yes, I know–if you give it your best shot, you can be proud of yourself regardless of the results.  You can try again.  (But don’t we all want to get it right the first time through?)  Being a learner sometimes means coaching yourself to the occasional hard truth.

So I need to go practice my kata instead of blogging about it.  Maybe next year I”ll take up knitting or learn to write HTML or something.  The task isn’t necessarily important–it is the benefit of feeling all the horror and glory–push and suffer–that is my true goal.  When I stop being a learner, I stop being an effective teacher. Osu!


Office Supply Store Crisis

Sunday was “Teacher Appreciation Day” at one of the big office supply stores, and I was standing at the doors when they opened on the off chance there might be some good free stuff.  Nope.  But I wandered the store anyway, breathing in the smell of chemically treated paper and filling a bag with some of the better sale items.  It is that time of year.

At the checkout, a young man smiles as I put my purchases on the counter and pass over my super-special teacher perks card.

“Looks like you have some great supplies here!”

“Yup.”  I stare at the items getting scanned and bagged.  Did I get enough highlighters?  Sticky notes?

“You must be so excited for school to start!” he chirps.  My head whips up and I look directly at the clerk.  I can see nothing but genuine enthusiasm in his eyes.

It takes me a second or two to respond.

Are you nuts, kid?  I’m not ready for school!  Are you secretly judging me, telling me that my undeserved vacation has already gone on too long?  Have you any idea how much prep I still have to do???  I’m only halfway through my summer reading list, oh crap!  And that whole plan I had to revamp my vocabulary-building program–I haven’t even started….I feel like I’m going to throw up.  If I respond sarcastically, does that make me a bad person?  If I don’t, can I live with myself?  

“Sort of.”  I pay, grab my bag, and get the heck out of there, resolved to spend the day either at the beach or hiding under my bed.

French Lessons

We’re just sitting in the pizzeria, sweaty and tired in the way only vacations can wear people out.  The mom, the niece, the nephew, and me, waiting for pizza, sucking down soda, and staring off into space, deflated.  Well, not the nephew–he is four and wriggling, humming loudly and staring at the family one table over.  We are too tired to corral his rudeness.

He kicks the booth.  He rearranges his silverware, dropping it while making bomb noises. Ka-pow!  We ignore him, trying to become one with the air conditioning in the crowded restaurant.  The nephew does not give up, but he is forced to mobilize his last bastion of offense–words.

“I know what people in Japan speak.”

I look at him and blink.  “Is it Japanese?”

“No,” he says, looking at me with that mix of scorn and pity only preschoolers can properly portray.  “In Japan they speak French.”

“How do you know that?”

“I just know.”  Experience has taught me not to pursue most subjects beyond this statement.

“You know, chief, I speak French.  I could teach you some words.  Like bonjour–that means hello.  Can you guess what le nez means?” I point to my face.


Three words into our new game, the nephew is done and just wants to talk about various bodily functions in the form of knock-knock jokes.  This and Wii games comprise his conversational world, although apparently he is now taking a limited interest in world languages.  About a minute into his knock-knock soliliquy in which every punchline happens to be “fart”, I decide to intervene.

“Hey chief, do you know what firmez la bouche means?”

“Shut yer pie hole!”  The nephew is grinning at me like a madman.

I blink again.  “How did you know that?”

His grin settles into a sphinx-like expression.  The pizza arrives, and the conversation is done.