Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Maturity

A couple of months ago, I wrote about a tough round I had with one of the blue belts with whom I regularly train. To sum up, he is a very nice guy who went too hard. I came out of the round feeling beat up and demoralized. Unable to mount any kind of offense, or even defense really, I basically just tapped over and over and waited for the round to end. 

It wasn't all bad. There are certainly things to be gained from this type of experience, and many of them I discussed in my previous blog post. But one of the most important things for a more advanced martial arts practitioner to understand is the mind of a beginner.

A few months ago, I had this conversation with one of the women in our karate school:

Me: How was sparring class tonight?
Her: It was good. Except for my round with ___. He is terrible!
Me: Yeah, he is a little spazzy. Just keep your hands up. He will get better.
Her: I hate sparring with him. He hits way too hard! 
Me: Don't be afraid to ask him to go a little lighter. I am sure he has no clue that he is hitting too hard. After all, he has only been sparring for a few months.
Her: I think he got mad when I punched him. That's why he did that.
Me: No, trust me. He has no control over what he is doing. If you told him that he hit you too hard, he would be shocked.

This conversation went on like this for awhile. But no matter what I said, this woman, who was pretty new to sparring herself, would not believe me. She swore that he was hitting her hard on purpose, out of anger or some kind of female-hatred issue. She could not accept the truth, which was that he was just as new to this as she was, and most likely had no idea how hard he was hitting. Why would he? 

In the first few months of sparring, there is a monologue in your head that goes something like this: 

"Ok, here we go, getting ready to spar, ok sensei says to keep my hands up and relax, wow, I am out of breath already, ok throw some punches, oh my god that punch almost killed me, oh yeah we can kick too, ugh kicks take a lot of energy, how long is this round? oh no I have to fight HIM next, I hope I don't die, man I need some water, why am I doing this again?"

And so on. 
Even the ones who are natural athletes are often surprised at how hard it all is in the beginning. Your brain is almost completely taken up with trying to remember the few techniques you have learned (along with all the effort it takes to NOT DIE OUT THERE!) . You can barely control your body. There is certainly no room for conscious thoughts, especially not strategic ones like "go punch that woman in the stomach as hard as I can". 

So, to new my female buddy, no, he most likely did not hit you hard on purpose. Odds are, his hand randomly shot out somewhere near your ribcage while he was trying to distinguish his right foot from his left. It is unlikely he even knew you were there.

Sure, some newbies are assholes. But most of them are just young. Not young in age necessarily, just young in training. They don't know any better yet. Like children, they need time and lots of patience. And I do not in any way mean that as an insult. Its just the truth.

Back to my blue belt guy. I finally got to roll with him again yesterday. He went much lighter than last time. After our round, I was pleased to be able to say this to him:

"That was a great pace. Thank you! The last time we rolled it was a little too hard and I felt like I could not accomplish anything. This was perfect. Thanks for working with me."

His response?
"I am sorry, I had no idea."

What is the moral of this story? If you spar with someone for months and months and every single time they slam you, they are either completely clueless or a big fat jerk who should be avoided. But if you know a guy (or girl) is still pretty new at this, give them a few months. Let them learn how to relax. Let them learn how to slow down. Feel free to tell them to do so, it will benefit everyone.

In other words, give them time to grow up.
Most likely, they will.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Slumber Party

Photo: Just picked Maya up from her first sleepover birthday party. It was a huge success! Well, except for the sleep part...Good morning. Happy Sunday! Happy Spring!

That over there is my daughter, asleep in my bed. We just picked her up from her very first sleepover birthday party. Up until last night, she had only ever spent the night at her grandparents house, so this was a big deal. 

The birthday was for two of Maya's best friends who are twins. There were 13 little girls at this party. Thirteen six and seven year old girls, eating oranges at midnight and singing "Let it Go" until the wee hours of the morning. I could never do that. These parents are my heroes. 

I am not sure if Maya got any sleep. Her friend's mom texted me around 10:30 to say that she was singing along to Frozen. Around 11:15 there were five little girls still awake, giggling and telling scary stories. She sent them into the twins bedroom so they would not wake up the other kids who were all passed out on air mattresses on the living room floor. I am not sure what happened after that. Maya said something about her friend who kept making her laugh while she was trying to fall asleep. There is a very good chance she pulled an all nighter.

The party was meant to end at 11am today but we picked her up early because she had a tummyache. Perhaps due to too many oranges at bedtime? She threw up a few times. Now she is sleeping. Is it possible they raided the liquor cabinet? She really does look like she went on a bender.

I am incredibly proud of her. I mean, not the throwing up part. That sucks. But the making it through the night part. Having fun with her friends. Sleeping (or not sleeping) in a strange house. All of that. 

I am proud of myself too. I only woke up 4 or 5 times to check my phone. I only texted them once to check on her. I only spent about an hour imagining her lying awake in her friend's room, staring at the ceiling, sobbing, and wishing she could come home. Which, of course, never happened. She was too busy giggling.  And perhaps doing tequila shots.

In other words,  I was only a mommy cliche for part of the night. The rest of the time. I managed to let go.
Well, almost.
Go me!

I imagine this is not going to be the best Sunday in our household. We are going to have an exhausted kid on our hands. One who is cranky, whiny, emotional and may or may not be puking up oranges all day. 

But that is ok. I am so very proud of her. 
And hopefully, she is proud of herself. 

Or at least she will be when she finally wakes up.
Which I imagine will be some time this evening.

Or tomorrow. 


Monday, March 31, 2014

Baby in the Corner

It was a Friday night 6 years ago when Amy first walked into the dojo. We were barely open, in fact I am pretty sure my husband was driving nails into drywall at the exact moment she entered. Still, there we were, post Friday night sparring class, hands wrapped, faces sweaty. At the time Amy lived above the dojo, and she was excited to finally see the old abandoned deli turn into something. She walked in, all smiles, eager to find out about us, and was met at the door with a handshake and a "Shhh, there's a baby sleeping in the corner." 

That baby, was my daughter, Maya, and she, like the Columbus Avenue dojo, was brand new. That Friday she dozed in her Pack & Play in the corner of the room, completely oblivious to the heated battles that were playing out on the floor nearby. It was not the first, nor would it be the last time she slept in the dojo. Our female students may remember tiptoeing around a small toddler on Saturday afternoons, napping on a mat on the floor of the women's changing room. 

Maya grew up in the dojo. Literally. 

Our students, Amy, Gail and Rufino, who received their black belts yesterday after 3 grueling days of promotion and many months of preparation, also grew in the dojo. The journey from white belt to black belt is not unlike the journey from newborn to child. You start out shaky, uncertain, not sure where to put your hands or how to properly balance on your feet.  You learn new words. Your body learns how to do new things. Things you needed help with, you suddenly can do on your own. And, in the way that childhood is only one step on the path to adulthood, first degree black belt is only one milestone in the long, amazing life of a serious martial artist. You are not done at black belt. You are just grown. The journey is just beginning.

But to be fair, it is a pretty big milestone.

The experience of black belt promotion is long, intense and all consuming. (Anyone who has visited my Facebook page in this past month could attest to that.) It is both terribly stressful and wonderfully exhilarating. You will have moments where you want to quit and moments where you are pretty sure you could lift the entire building up over your head like Superman. But in the end what will linger most is the people. You went through something incredible together. You will get home and think "Whew, thank god that is over. Thank god I am alone, in my room, with my own thoughts, where no one is looking at me or asking me to do things or....hey, I wonder what Amy is doing right now. I should call her..." You will text each other for no reason other than to say hello. 

On Wednesday night, after our first day was complete, I was talking to Shuseki-Shihan Monte who is the head instructor of the Brooklyn dojo and one of the two men who run the promotion. I mentioned that I was feeling a little frustrated, not with how I had performed, which was fine, but with how I felt out there. He said, "As long as you learned something, it was worth doing."

I learned a lot about myself this past week, about patience and acceptance and resilience and determination and the benefits of getting outside my comfort zone no matter how difficult and scary it may be. I learned how strong I can be, both physically and mentally. I also have a whole list of things I need to work on, and only a handful of them have anything to do with karate. But more importantly, I learned a ton about other people. I learned about one student's childhood. I learned about another guy's family. I heard how it feels to recover from a major injury and what it is like to have your father be your teacher. I did not learn these things during the actual promotion, but in conversations I had while eating dinner before we began, while stretching out in the corner, while waiting for the others to show up, and at brunch on Sunday when it was all over. 

Tonight, we celebrate with everyone at our dojo. Tomorrow, life goes back to normal. In other words, we train. A four year old jumps around while I try to get him to stand still. Little Jake chews his fingers. I work on my half guard. 

Around 1am Friday night, somewhere between sai kata and choking out the bear, Shuseki-Shihan Monte said this: "Its late. We could be anywhere right now. But we are here for one reason. We love what we do." 

Yup, that pretty much sums it up. 

Congratulations to our new black belts, Amy, Gail and Rufino.
Congratulations to my wonderful husband, the new Kyoshi Matthew.
And congratulations to me. 
It was certainly worth it.


_________________________________________________________________

PS: Part of the promotion experience includes writing an essay on the philosophy of your karate. For those of you interested in reading mine, I have pasted it below. Feel free to read it now, or later, or never. I completely understand if you are sick of me. I certainly am. 

Student Teacher

Exactly one year ago, I had the privilege of watching two remarkable karateka participate in promotion to 5th degree black belt. These men were not just physically impressive.  It went beyond their flawless punches and well memorized terminology. They exhibited a level of focus and energy that would be impossible for a first degree black belt, even the most gifted athlete. Both of them had spent hours, days, years, truly thinking about each technique they threw, to make each one as real as possible. These two men live and breathe the martial arts, even after over 30 years of training. Standing there on the dojo floor in front of me, were two people who fully embodied everything that I believe a karate master should be.

These two students were of course Kyoshi Russell and Kyoshi Desi. And after watching their performance I was pretty certain of two things. Number one, I really needed to work on my technique. And number two, I was never taking another Kenshikai promotion, ever again.

It is not that my karate was so terrible. Actually, I think I do a pretty decent kata. And it certainly wasn’t because I hadn’t put the time in. After all, it has been 7 years since my last promotion. No, it was more about the kind of karate student I used to be, compared to who I am now.

Every senior student knows it is difficult to stay excited about karate when you have been doing it for twenty five years. That is not to say that I still do not love my training. Just that I have done an awful lot of chudan tsukis. And although there is always something to work on, even in the basic techniques, there is only so much thrill you can get out of just taking class every week. So you find something else to add to your martial arts experience. For some, it is to pursue a deeper understanding of the moves, their history, the practical nature of the katas. For others, it is to start teaching, to find meaning in your training by sharing it with new karatekas.

For me, it was not enough to become a teacher. I also took up jiu-jitsu.

About 3 years ago, I decided it was time to be a white belt again. I wanted to feel the confusion of being brand new at something, in particular, a martial art that was very different from karate. I had no idea what I was getting into.

I am a blue belt now, and I love it! But my first 6 months of BJJ training were very, very difficult. Twenty plus years of karate did not give my any kind of edge when it came to grappling. (Other than the stubbornness to not quit when some giant dude was sitting on my chest, trying to choke me.) The moves were so confusing. And there were SO many of them! And I was oh so small. And did I mention that they were sitting on me?

Honestly, the only reason I did not quit is because I do not quite know how to quit a martial art. I never have. Clearly.

My journey from hopeless BJJ white belt to the semi-confident blue belt that I am now is a whole other 3 page essay. But I mention it here only because at the time I was watching Kyoshi Russell and Kyoshi Desi perform their impressive Tai Sabaki, I was very, very into my jiu-jitsu training.

Of course, that wasn’t all I was doing.
I was also running a dojo.

When Sensei Matthew and I took over the UWS Kenshikai branch, we really had no idea what we were doing. Shuseki-Shihan had passed away suddenly, and all we knew was that we were supposed to keep his dojo alive somehow. Everyone was shocked and confused, but even in the midst of all that, people wanted to come to class. I distinctly remember there was one evening, in the middle of those first few whirlwind months, where we had a meeting of all the parents. There we were, Sensei Matthew and I (we were still Senpais at the time), talking to 10-15 parents whose kids had just lost their karate teacher. We were not sure exactly what we were doing there honestly, just that we felt we ought to tell them something.

The kids chased each other around the dojo for an hour, sliding across the wooden floor in their socks like they always had. Meanwhile, the parents all had one question. When can we bring our kids to class?

I was still working full time back then, but I had arranged with my boss to leave work early so I could teach our first 5:30pm kids class. It was not my first time teaching karate (I had been assisting Shuseki-Shihan for awhile, as well as working in numerous other kids programs) but that did not matter. I was terrified! I do not remember what I taught them that day, only that whenever I was unsure I just told them to yell louder.

When all else fails, just kiai. A lot.

That was almost ten years ago.  Now the UWS dojo has close to 150 children enrolled. We have beginner classes, advanced classes, classes for 8-12 year olds, classes for 5-7 year olds, and my favorite, the 3-4 year old pre-karate class. I invented this class from scratch, combining karate techniques with obstacle courses, games, and other exercises. I have tricks for making them kick (pick up your knee and then shake a bug off your toe), for making them put their hands up (show me your scary faces!) and most importantly, tricks for getting them to stand still. (For a few seconds anyway. They are 3.)

I teach both the 3-4 year old and 5-7 year old classes at our dojo. And every time I step in front of those kids I try to be a better teacher. The days when things do not go the way I planned (and there are many) I go home and play the class over in my head, trying to figure out what I could have done differently. Whenever a kid quits karate I try to figure out if there was anything I could have done to keep them there longer. Sensei Matthew and I have long conversations (usually in the car) about how we can improve the dojo. We brainstorm for new ideas. We plan events. We complain about annoying parents. In other words, I put a lot of effort into trying to be the best instructor I can.

When I watched the Sensei/Kyoshi promotion last year, my first thought was “I am not like them.  I do not look like them. I do not train like them. I put more focus into running the dojo, than training in it.” Not to mention all those arm bars and gi chokes. I thought I did not deserve to get any more stripes on my belt unless I was one hundred percent devoted to being a karate student.

But over the past year, I realized that I was wrong. I am still am extremely dedicated student. I am a student of being a teacher.

When I spend an hour trying to figure out the best way to teach a four year old Taikyoku 1, I am working on my karate. Every time I walk a brand new yellow belt through Pinan 2, I am learning more about the details of the kata. As anyone who has ever taught before can tell you,  the best way to find out exactly how well you know your techniques is to try to explain them to someone else.

Of course, I still take class 2-3 times a week, every week. And although I would be lying if I said that I wake up every morning chomping at the bit to practice karate, there is still nothing more comforting to me than my bare feet on a hardwood floor. Some days performing kata, the same kata I have done for 20 plus years, is as natural and beautiful to me as walking alongside the ocean. I love my white gi and my beat up tattered black belt more than anything else I own. And although running a dojo is not always easy,  I truly love teaching those little guys karate.

For all these reasons I am honored to be attending this promotion. Still, when Shihan Leighton handed me my letter (and took my black belt away!) I felt panicked. What was I getting myself into? Who do these people expect to see up there? My punches don’t look like those other guys. A chronic shoulder injury means that lately I have been working more on precision than power. These days, when I spar, it is less about aggression and more about strategy. I have no interest anymore in pushing myself to the point of injury. I am older. I am different. I do jiu-jitsu now. I just learned that sai kata a month ago! All of our students are going to be so excited for me.

I am going to disappoint everyone!!

But then I caught my breath and remembered. I am not representing perfection. I am representing perseverance. I am representing having run a successful dojo for 8 years. I am representing being a leader to a bunch of confused and very fidgety four year olds. I am representing change and growth and maturity. The me who is going for Kyoshi does not have to look like the me who went for Sensei 7 years ago. It does not have to look like those other Kyoshis. (Thank goodness!) It just has to look like me. This me. Now.

Thank you so much for this opportunity. I am honored to be up here representing my dojo. Thank you especially to Sensei Matthew Fremon, who is not just my husband and my business partner, but someone who inspires me every day with his strength, his creativity and his passion for improvement. (I could talk about him for hours, but you can just read his essay.)
As a Kyoshi, I promise to continue to train hard, in everything. I promise to continue to grow, as a student, and as a teacher. I promise to keep thinking of ways to get those three year olds to stand still.

I still don’t look like those other two. But I promise to keep practicing my kata. Perhaps someday I’ll get there.
Osu.








Saturday, March 29, 2014

Meaningful

Good morning.

There's that silly dojo clock again. I am not saying that was when we finished promotion necessarily. Its just a clock. Who knows when I took that picture? Could have been months ago...

(It was last night. Right after the bear went to sleep.) 

You know that show Lost? Where they are all stranded on that island and they have to deal with that smoke monster and those Others and learning all about each other and all that?

Yeah, like that.
Well, without the horrific plane crash.

Tomorrow I will have a lot to write. After our students are all done sparring and we sit down with a cold beer to celebrate. 
For now, lets just say that I had fun out there last night. 
Which, for me, was the perfect way to finish this whole roller coaster of an experience.

Also, I know belts aren't supposed to matter. But this one is really pretty.

I am very proud of myself.
I am very proud of all of us.
It was meaningful, in many, many ways, which you will hear about soon, at the point when I am able to put coherant thoughts together.

Now where the heck is my coffee?



Friday, March 28, 2014

May You Live in Interesting Times

There is a old Chinese proverb that goes "May you live in interesting times". It is generally considered a curse.

When I was weighing in my mind whether or not I wanted to participate in another karate promotion, one of the things I thought was that I wanted the event to be "meaningful". I didn't want it to just be about getting another stripe on my belt.

But by meaningful, I clearly meant "I want this event to be mentally and physically challenging but not so much so that it isn't also totally fun at all times. I want to be required to perform well, but only if I feel one hundred percent in body and mind." 

In other words, I want it to be a meaningful experience, in exactly the way that I am most comfortable with.

On Wednesday night, one of my fellow Senseis asked me how I was feeling. I made this whole profound speech about making my peace with my shoulder being hurt and with not feeling like the me I was 7 years ago. I made that speech like I knew exactly how I was going to feel out there and I was ok with all of it.

Interesting times...

I did a really good job on Wednesday. We all did. But it was not what I was expecting. I was more uncomfortable than I had thought I would be. I was more nervous than I had thought I would be. I was more tired than I had thought I would be. 

I have always had a problem with being in pain in front of people. I don't like to feel weak. It makes me very anxious. So it is fitting that the number one challenge of this promotion for me (so far anyway) has been to be in pain in front of a group of people. I have also always had a problem with control. So it is fitting that the number one challenge of this promotion for me (so far anyway) has been to try to accept the things that I have no control over. 

No matter what happens, after tonight it will all be over. (For me, anyway. Our students going for shodan have one more day on Sunday.)  I could tell you all the things I expect to happen and how I am preparing for each and every one of them. Or I could just get on the bus and see where it takes me.

I am looking forward to tonight. I am looking forward to doing my best.
I will also be really happy when it is over.

Sounds like I am taking promotion tonight, doesn't it?
Believe me, the irony is not lost on me.

Also, I know this is my blog and all, but I am also really looking forward to telling you all about our 3 newest black belts. They are doing awesome. And to be honest, I am getting a little sick of myself. 

Ok, time to pack my bag.
Ice pick, check.
Beef jerky, check.
Sleeping bag, check.
Jump rope, check.
Six blue LEGOS, check.
Fuzzy bunny slippers, check.



Ya'll didn't think I was really going to tell you what we do at promotion did you?

But look how happy that bear is this morning. 
I hope he isn't hungry.



Monday, March 24, 2014

A Dog, Career Day, and How Is it NOT Wednesday Yet??

Sometimes, when I am trying to come up with things to blog about, I reread my old posts. I suppose you could say it gives me perspective. Sometimes I reread my old posts for no other reason than because I can. (Meeeeeeeeee!) This morning, while browsing through March of 2013, I realized that I am, much like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, about to relive the exact same week all over again. 

Last year, at this time, there was a Sensei/Kyoshi promotion going on. Maya was getting ready for Career Day at her school. Chloe (the dog) was trying to eat my breakfast. (http://mamommyarchives.blogspot.com/2013/03/a-dog-career-day-and-other-randomness.html)

Today is March 24th. This afternoon Maya and I are going to splatter paint on one of my old shirts so she can wear it this Wednesday for Career Day. (This year, she wants to be an artist.) And then, Wednesday evening, we begin another Sensei/Kyoshi promotion. Another year, another bear to subdue. (http://mamommyarchives.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-first-rule-about-sensei-promotion.html)

(Chloe, obviously, has not changed a wink.)

This year it is a little different of course, because it is actually my promotion. 

So I have to fight the bear.
Among other things.

I am not really nervous about the karate part. I know karate. I will most likely make a few mistakes, due to nerves and the fact that it is past my bedtime. But I do not mind, I am not expecting perfection. It is the unknowns that put a knot in my stomach. Like my shoulder, which is entirely unpredictable. Some mornings I wake up and feel great, other times I can barely turn my head to the left. Training, sleeping funny, or simply riding the subway can set it off. I won't know what I am working with until Wednesday afternoon. 

Also, these damn kids keep coughing at me. Teaching class is like a scene out of 300, with germs flying through the air from every direction.  That and the fact that Spring in NYC seems to mean 25 degrees and windy, means there is a very good chance I wake up with the flu. There is not enough Purell in the world to combat a snot-ridden four year old who chews his fingers in class.  (His name is Jake. He is really sweet. And germy.)

Did I mention its cold outside. Also, we might get some snow. Which means the dojo is going to be freezing. You know what is great for sore neck muscles? Sitting on the floor for 3 hours in a cold room. 

We also have three students going for first degree black belt this week. They are rock stars and are going to be fabulous, but that does not make me any less nervous for them. 

You know what is great for sore neck muscles? Sitting on the floor for 3 hours in a cold room, while feeling slightly tense the whole time. 

All complaints aside, I think this week is going to be great. If it would just get going already. I thought that Wednesday was just the day after Tuesday, but now I am pretty sure they added a few more days in there just to mess with me. Seriously, this has been the longest week ever.

Yeah, I know it is only Monday. 
That's the point!

Right now there is nothing to do but wait. And train. Very, very carefully. And try not to breathe on the subway.

Here is a bear:



I am thinking of jumping on his back and attempting to choke him out, BJJ style. 

What do you think?

P.S. Anyone have a machete I could borrow?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Boys and Girls

With all this karate promotion stuff going on, it has been awhile since I climbed up onto my soapbox to preach to the 20 of you who read this blog. Its not that I do not have an opinion about Chris Christie or where that damn airplane is, I have just been too busy working on my sai kata to write about it. 

But don't worry, this post is not about either of those topics. 

My daughter likes to bring things to school to use with her friends at lunchtime. Toys are not allowed, so usually she brings a book to share, or her journal, which she often allows her friends to write in. (I used to do this too!) She adds this to her homework folder, her notebook, her book baggie (a plastic ziplock bag full of school books) and 2 or 3 snacks. All of this adds up to a bulging backpack that makes her look more like she is about to hike up the Appalachian Trail than attend first grade. 

Every morning we have the same discussion:
Maya: "Mama can I bring this to school today?"
Me: "Sure but you have to take one of the other things out."
Maya: "Why??"
Me: "So you don't end up with a bad shoulder like your mama."

And so on.
This morning I suggested she remove her crackers and applesauce from the unnecessarily heavy basket she carries them to school in and just stick them in one of the pockets of her backpack. 

"But mommy, I will feel embarrassed."

Kids are so cute. She will run off to school in all kinds of outfits with no mind to whether or not they go together, or fit, or have holes in them. She does not care what her hair looks like, or whether or not her socks match. And don't get me wrong, I am thrilled that none of these things matter to her yet. But god forbid she shows up to lunch with her snack in a plastic bag instead of a lunchbox. Oh, the shame!

All of this made me think of the My Little Pony boy. If you are not sure what I am talking about, I can sum it up very easily. (Or you can just Google it.) A 9 year old boy in NC took his My Little Pony backpack to school. He got bullied and teased. The school told him he was no longer allowed to bring it. The Internet went nuts. 

I am sure you can figure out what the varied responses have been. My Little Pony is for girls. I would never let my boy bring that backpack to school. A boy can like whatever he wants. The school has no right to tell him what he can and can't bring. Those kids were wrong to bully him. The school was wrong. His parents are terrible. And so on. 

There was a similar uproar recently regarding little boys who want to wear dresses. Is it ok? Should you allow your boy to go to school in a dress?

Ok, soapbox time.

I obviously have a daughter, but lets imagine for a moment that my little Maya is instead a boy named Max. I say Max can like whatever he wants to like. If he wants ponies, he can have ponies. He can wear whatever he wants to wear. If Max wants a dress, Max can have a dress. But before he wears that dress to school, we are going to have a little talk. And it will go something like this:

"Max, it is fine for you to wear that dress to school. It is your dress and you love it. But you need to understand that some of your friends think that dresses are only for girls. They might make fun of you for it. You might feel sad. They are wrong for making fun of you, but sometimes kids are wrong. Sometimes kids are mean. If they say mean things to you, by all means tell them they are wrong. Tell them boys and girls can do whatever they want. Or, if you do not want to worry about that, save your dress for playing at home."

Also, if someone hits you or pushes you, push back. It is ok. I will explain it to the teacher.

Of course bullying is not ok. But it happens. Kids tease other kids. Believing it is wrong does not make it any less likely to happen. Is it ok for boys to wear dresses? Absolutely. Do most boys wear them? No. So when your kid shows up to school in one, he is likely to be the only one. 

We can keep working on changing the world. But until it is changed, we have to be honest with our kids.

Boys and girls are different. Don't believe me? Try to get your five year old to stop jumping on his buddy at the playground. Its like trying to teach a dog to leave a scrap of food alone. They want to play this game. Their little bodies are dying to play this game. And you can, like I did, attempt to keep all pink princesses away from your little girl as long as possible. It does not matter; she will find them anyway. And suddenly, at age 3, she will be playing tea party no matter how many karate classes you bring her to.

And while we are discussing gender stereotypes, there is nothing wrong with a man who isn't afraid to cry. But there is something wrong with a man who is so whiny and timid that he never exhibits confidence or strength or power. There is nothing wrong with an aggressive, career driven woman. But there is something wrong with a woman who is so focused on getting ahead in the world that she has completely suppressed her instincts to love and nurture others. Gender roles should be fluid, in childhood and adulthood. In our desire to break stereotypes, we do not have to go so far in the other direction that a woman is now embarrassed to admit that she loves being a mommy.

I love being a mommy. And I run my own business. And I can kick your ass. And I know how to run the dishwasher. 

A little boy in a dress should not have to worry that his buddies might tease him. But they probably will. Not because they are evil and unenlightened, but because they are children and this stuff is confusing.  So parents, at least prepare your kids for the inevitable. Teach them what to say when one of their friends is mean. Teach them what to do when one of their classmates gets a little too close. 

And, although I would not do it, it is also perfectly ok for a parent to forbid their son from wearing a dress to school. Not because "boys don't wear dresses" but because kids will be kids and you don't want him to have to spend his whole day defending himself. 

Just remembering how to do math is hard enough.
Not to mention trying to sit still for so long.
Because we all know how hard it is for little boys to sit still...

:-)