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The Story of Justin

In November of 2004, about a week after the unexpected death of our karate instructor, my husband (boyfriend at the time) and I held a meeting of parents at the old dojo. We sat with a small group of shell-shocked moms and dads to discuss the future of the kids classes, while their children had slippery sock races across the smooth wooden floor. We couldn't really stay in that space for long, we told them. The landlord wanted us out. We'd basically be squatting there until they locked the door or we found a new place.  But yes, we suppose we can have classes again if you want us to. I mean if you don't mind your kids taking karate with us instead of their real teacher who is dead now. Taking classes in the room where their teacher passed away. You know, if that isn't weird. (Don't worry, we didn't actually say all that. Not out loud anyway.)

Yes, they said. Please have class. Can we have it tomorrow?

Then two tween-aged junior black belt girls offered us the money in their piggy banks to help pay the rent.
Seriously, that happened.

I had a full time job at the time, as an after school coordinator, but I got my boss' permission to leave work early so I could teach a 6:00pm kids class. It wasn't my first time teaching karate to kids; I had been assisting my teacher for awhile and had also taught at a kids gym out in Brooklyn. But this felt different, bigger. Of course I had no illusions of taking my teacher's place in their hearts and minds, I just wanted the kids to have fun.

But before I could do that, there was Justin to deal with. It was 4:30. Justin was in my office because of a fight on the basketball court. Apparently his buddy had pushed him trying to get the ball. So he pushed back, and then in the way of 9 year old boys, the pushing turned into more pushing which turned into harder pushing and then mediocre wrestling and then their counselor pulled them apart. The other boy stopped and walked away. But Justin, still furious, tried to get back at the kid, punching and flailing and yelling until the after school counselor had no choice but to bring him to me.

I should tell you that Justin was often furious. That he sat on the chair in my office, fists clenched, face scrunched up and called his friend names that no 9 year old should say. That he tried to run out the door twice. That eventually he burst into tears and I hugged him and told him that it was going to be ok.

That was a long time ago. I don't remember any of the other details of Justin's life. I don't remember what his dad said when he came to pick up his exhausted son that afternoon. I don't remember if he had a diagnosis of some kind, or was on medication, or was simply a very frustrated 9 year old boy who really hated to lose. But I do remember feeling grateful, that an hour and a half before leading my first karate class to the students of the now dead Shihan William Oliver, I got to hold Justin's angry trembling body and tell him it was going to be ok.

The class that night was fine. Whenever I was unsure what to tell the kids, I just made them kiai really really loudly. Yelling always works. I am pretty sure they had fun. Its possible they even learned some karate.

My husband will tell you that the minute before we lined up that kids class was one of the top five scariest of his life. And he has climbed up cliff faces and sparred with champions.

We squatted in that location until early January, when two things happened on the same day: we found a room in a yoga studio down the street to rent and the landlord stuck an eviction notice up on the door.

Three years later we moved to our current dojo on 106th and Columbus.

2018 will mark the end of our ten year lease on this current space. We are hopeful that we will be able to sign a new one.

Its funny how time passes. Of course, none of the kids in that first class train with us anymore. A couple of their parents are my Facebook friends. One of the junior black belt girls who offered us her allowance has a younger brother who comes to sparring sometimes. His name is Kei and is a killer.

Hundreds of kids have come in and out of my life since then. So many different personalities, I could probably write a blog post about each and every one of them. I am thankful for all of them, even the ones who take extra work.

I sometimes wonder what happened to Justin. In truth, he was just one angry kid in a sea of frustration, memorable more for what else what going on in my life at the time then for anything he actually did. He was neither the first, nor the last angry 9 year old boy in my office. But I remember him because he is symbolic of that day, that first class, the beginning of this wonderful life that I have now.

So here's to another year of little ones; of messy hair, sticky fingers and slippery socks. We are going to work our butts off in 2017!

Don't worry, if you aren't sure what to do just kiai really, really loud. It works every time.


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