Sunday, April 28, 2013

Meridian ATA Martial Arts: A Love Story in Fits, Starts, and Parts

I am sure my instructors and classmates would cringe at the title of this post, but folks---this IS a love story.  I write it here on my homeschool blog, because if it weren’t for my Meridian ATA family, I wouldn’t be where or who I am today. This post is my start.

Once upon a time (five or six-ish years ago) I was a stressed, out of control, insecure, crappy mom to four young kids. I can’t even explain how lousy and negative I was.  I yelled all the time, I was scared all the time, I reacted to everything in a temper. I felt paralyzed at the prospect of making simple decisions about anything. Everything freaked me out and I was totally overwhelmed and struggling to mentally and emotionally to “keep my head above water.” I could fake it for awhile, but inside, I was not awesome.

During this time, my son Calvin was in kindergarten and was struggling.  Academically, the kid was off-the-charts-smart, but he was having a hard time finding a place to fit in at school and at home. One day, he came home with a flyer advertising “Karate for Kids” and I thought we’d give it a go.  I remember my brothers’ involvement in martial arts when they were kids and how confident and focused it had made them.  I enrolled Calvin in a six week introductory class.


Calvin at his first rank test.


I was blown away by the awesomeness that is Meridian ATA Martial Arts.  Calvin’s instructor, Mrs. Heather Neitzell, was (IS!) amazing. It was as fun to watch her in class as it was to watch my kid.  Calvin thrived under her instruction. Mrs. Neitzell was everything I was not: positive, consistent, calm, encouraging, and kind.  I found myself taking mental notes about how to handle kids while watching Mrs. Neitzell teach Calvin’s class.  Calvin gained so much confidence and I was so impressed with Mrs. N that I decided to sign my two girls up for her class as well.  And then, in the hopes that some of Mrs. N’s awesomeness would rub off on me, I enrolled in the evening adult tae kwon do class that she taught with her husband, Mr. Jim Neitzell.

I was a squidgy ball of nerves at my first class.  I was overweight, hadn’t really exercised in years, and had just donned a white uniform that was cut for someone broad of shoulder and narrow of ass, not the other way around, like me. And the fabric had no give. I felt like an idiot. An idiot with a wedgie. 

Despite my wardrobe issues, I stepped onto the mat and was greeted by Mrs. N and a couple of teen male instructors who reminded me of Power Rangers, only without the dorky helmets. I thought I would die, and I was sure the instructors would burst out laughing at my doughy vastness.  But the instructors were encouraging and positive as I bumbled my way through the warm up and learned a bit of the first form of Songahm tae kwon do.  At the end of class, Mrs. N tied on my white belt while I was coached to holler “I want to be a black belt!” I left the first class feeling giddy.  I had survived. No one had laughed at me, and people were actually telling me they looked forward to seeing me at the next class. Maybe I could actually do this!


Here’s me in my uniform. I just passed my first rank test. I still had a wedgie.

The next three or so weeks of classes went the same—I started out terrified and feeling like a doofus, was patiently and enthusiastically taught basic techniques, and left the class feeling like a million bucks. I worked with many different instructors, of all ages and from various walks of life.  That was thrilling, and humbling, too.  Each of them were happy to tell me how they themselves got into tae kwon do, what it had done for them, their successes and failures, and lessons learned.

A note here about me: I grew up fairly active, if not particularly athletic. I ran a seven minute mile in high school, I took strength training and fitness classes in college. But after I started having babies, I became sedentary and put on weight. Taking up tae kwon do challenged my body in ways I never anticipated. It actually frightened me, discovering what my body could do, and seeing power and strength in my strikes and kicks. I cracked and broke boards. My newly discovered body also cracked open other things, too.

One day in class, I was working with a young male instructor. He was a nice guy, an excellent instructor, but I was intimidated by him. It had nothing to do with him personally. But he resembled a person from an ugly part of my younger life.  At that point in my tae kwon do classes, I hadn’t yet learned to speak up when I was uncomfortable with something---and I tried to manage my unease by reminding myself that my past was my past and it was over.

We were working on a kick drill I found particularly taxing—I was already uncomfortable working with this instructor and I was wearing down and stressing out. In an effort to keep me going, he lunged toward me—and I panicked.  I started kicking at him and screaming and crying all at the same time.  I was desperately out of control.  Fortunately, Mr. Neitzell was nearby and managed somehow to maneuver me to a bench to recover.  I was a wreck, and I was horrified by my behavior. I had caused a scene, disrupted class, and was screaming like a crazy person.  Mr. N sat down by me and tried to talk me down.  I don’t remember his words, but I do recall he reached out to reassure me, to pat my shoulder, or something---and still panicky, I snarled at him to leave me alone. Mr. N immediately backed off. (Understandably.  I’m sure he didn’t want me to go all bat-s#&* again.) What struck me, even as I was not in a good place, was that Mr. N respected me and gave me space to get myself together.  He didn’t get in my face or continue to try to touch me or talk. He didn’t hover over me. He got up and walked away.  Maybe I scared him. (I’d certainly scared myself.) Maybe he went to grab the phone to call the loony bin.  I don’t know.  But I felt very grateful that he had LISTENED to me when I told him to leave me alone. I wish I could express what that meant to me. Because he listened, I knew I could trust him.

Of course, when I had recovered from my horrible display, I was mortified. I went and hid in the restroom because I was closer to it than the exit.  I could never show my face in class again.  Everyone had seen me and everyone had heard me.  I was a freaking nut job.  I couldn’t face my instructors or Mrs. N or Mr. N or anyone---I decided I’d leave and never, never come back.  I was trying to figure out how I was going to get out of the building without anyone seeing me (an impossibility given that the restroom was on the far end from the building’s exit) when a young female instructor walked into the restroom.  Her name is Ms. Lisa Strader.  With genuine concern, she asked if I was okay.  I told her I was horribly embarrassed and apologized for my actions and told her I wouldn’t be coming back. This young lady, all of 17 years old, hugged me and spoke words that I have never forgotten, and absolutely clung to in hard times.  She looked me in the eye and said: “It’s going to be okay. We’re a family and you’re safe with us.”

There.  Now you have my start (and a fit) in Meridian ATA Martial Arts. I’ve come a long way.  These people, my ATA family, have been so patient with me.  So loving. So encouraging. I’ll post more of their awesomeness soon, because this story is only beginning.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Car Schooling: Les Miserables Edition

I love it when people find out I homeschool and assume that I’m actually home with my kids all day long, every single day.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I mean, sure, I’m with my kids A LOT, but we are rarely just sitting around at home.
Take today for example---we got up late, went for donuts (a birthday tradition—my oldest just turned 13), swung by the eye doctor to pick up four new sets of glasses (stupid eyeball genes---sorry, kids!), ran to book club, went to piano lessons, and followed that with dance lessons.  We spent a LOT of time in the car. 
I was feeling guilty about it because we hadn’t gotten to any of the paper school work that I had planned: spelling tests, math review, research for oral reports on Central and South America (due tomorrow!) But then I realized how much the kids had been learning as we rocketed from place to place.
As we headed out to Krispy Kreme this morning, I turned on the new Les Miserables soundtrack. I hadn’t intended to turn it into a lesson for the kids---I had just been tagged by a friend on Facebook regarding this Grumpy Cat meme—and wanted to listen to that section of the opening sequence so I could laugh at it:
After I imagined Grumpy Cat speaking in Russell Crowe’s “Javert” voice, the kids wanted to know why I was laughing hysterically.  I explained, but they hadn’t seen the meme and didn’t really get it.  Nevertheless, Calvin commented that he really liked the opening sequence on the soundtrack, and one thing led to another---I was telling the story of Les Mis as we listened to the entire album.  I paused it in places to explain what was going on, or what the lyrics meant. 
The kids really got into it—we talked about everything from the themes in the story: justice vs. mercy, redemption, forgiveness, endurance, optimism, fear, etc., to literary things: rhyme, foreshadowing, the hero’s journey, and character archetypes.
We talked about music: instrument choice in songs, lyrics and poetry, rhythm, moods, major/minor transitions, singing voices, emotion, tempo, patterns, melody, themes, and anthems.
We talked about French history, language, and culture.  We talked about social problems and drew parallels between the struggles of the characters in Les Mis and people of today---we discussed social stigma, socioeconomic disparities, survivor guilt, monarchies and other forms of government, and more. 
By the end of our running around in the car---we had finished the soundtrack and talked about so much! The kids are beginning to see why I love the latest film version of Les Miserables—as well as the unabridged book, published by Signet Classics.  The kids had made all kinds of connections between Victor Hugo’s epic story and their own lives and the world around them. 
Today illustrates one of the beauties of homeschooling---learning anywhere you go, as you go.  In the car, my kids got some seriously in depth language arts, history, geography, social studies, and music lessons.  They also had a chance to form questions, hypotheses, and practice their observation skills—so they got a science class as well.  It wasn’t even PLANNED—the lessons just happened, and they were profound learning experiences for all of us.
I can’t wait to do it again!