This is one of my favorite memories about teaching martial arts.
Even though it happened over twenty years ago, I remember him like it was yesterday, this young boy from India. Tjay was very bright, but terribly shy and quite possibly the most uncoordinated child that I had ever taught, even to this day. After his first introductory lesson, his father asked me point blank, “What do you think? Can he ever be any good at this? Do you think he can ever be a Black Belt?” Not wanting to disappoint the father or lower Tjay’s self esteem more than it already was, I lied. I told them that, although it would be hard, I had complete faith in Tjay and I knew that if he stuck it out, he would one day earn his Black Belt. The father responded by saying, “Well you’re the expert. If you believe that he can do it that is good enough for me. Let’s get him signed up.”
The guilt started the moment they left and continued to build to the point that I was sick to my stomach. I had completely sold out. There was NO way in this lifetime that Tjay would ever even earn his yellow belt, let alone his Black Belt. How could I mislead this nice family? Tim, my brother and business partner, was able to calm me down a bit by reminding me that Tjay had no where to go but up and that our program would help even him.
I decided to make Tjay my personal project. I made sure to give him lots of attention and encouragement. Over time, a funny thing began to happen. Tjay started to get it, and before long, he successfully passed his yellow belt test.
Five years later, I found him in front of me, among a group of newly promoted Junior Black Belts. He had done it… and quite well at that. After the test, he and his dad asked to speak privately with me. The father began to express his appreciation for the program and how much it had done for Tjay. Then Tjay said, “Thanks for believing in me. I never thought I could do it. I wanted to quit a bunch of times, but I didn’t want to let you down. I’ve learned so much from you, you’re a great teacher.”
Tjay continued to train for a few more years. He grew into a fine young man. The last time we talked, he was in medical school. He wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.
I’ve lost touch with him now, but I hope our paths will cross again because I never really got the chance to thank him. Looking back, I realize that I learned way more from Tjay than he ever learned from me. He taught me how to be a better teacher. He showed me what perseverance really is. He demonstrated the virtues of patience and about courage.
If you are teaching martial arts, I hope the next time you step out on to the mat and see that struggling student you think of Tjay and make a conscious effort to believe that they will succeed, just as so many other struggling students have before them. But don’t stop there, let them know that you believe in them as well.
By the way, Tjay, if you’re out there. thank you.