My son Theo has been taking karate on Friday afternoons for the last 4 years now. His teacher, Robert, is a terrific instructor who trained in Korean martial art called Tang Soo Do, which is very similar to the karate developed in Okinawa and Japan. This is the style he teaches to the kids, and it really tickled me that when Theo started learning it at age five he could count to ten in Korean. As an instructor, Robert is a perfect blend of disciplinarian and entertainer. He’s very serious about teaching them a new kick or block, and is clear to the children that he won’t put up with any bad attitude or laziness, but he makes sure they have a break for playtime in every class. Robert understands his kids well. He knows that Theo is easily distracted, loves to play the clown and doesn’t want to make a huge effort in class. Yet, he has won him over with his strength, talent and great sense of humor, holding Theo’s interest for 4 years. I am always surprised and impressed when Theo is being tested for his next belt level (in tests that last over an hour at a time) at how much he has actually learned and remembered.
Today, I went to pick Theo up after his karate class, which is at the new My Gym kids’ fitness center that Robert opened near us in Atwater Village. Robert worked hard to build this facility and whenever I’m there, I can’t help noticing how excited kids seem to be there, climbing, jumping, dancing, kicking and playing, moving their whole bodies – and not just their little thumbs. It’s such a wonderful antidote to the screens that threaten to devour our kids (the way they have already swallowed many adults too). Between classes, I managed to corner Robert and hand him a little bag containing a small Japanese cotton noren, a type of curtain that is traditionally hung in doorways. This one is blue with white designs of Daruma, a round ball of a man with a grumpy expression. Daruma is the Japanese name for Bodhidharma, the Indian Buddhist monk who is believed to have founded meditational Buddhism, called Chan in China and Zen in Japan. Chinese legend has also credited the Indian monk with beginning the physical training of the Chinese Shaolin monks that led to the creation of Shaolin Kung Fu. For this reason, Daruma, this master of both mental and physical discipline, is a sort of patron saint of the martial arts in Japan. Despite his profound impact on Japanese spirituality, the Japanese have typically depicted him in a comical manner. Such depictions remind us that the best teachers we have are those who manage to perfect the balance between hard work and humor, seriousness and silliness, focus and fun.