Friday, August 7, 2020

Karate Mama

A lot of unexpected things have happened over the past few months. Perhaps the most unexpected of all is that I am now taking karate classes. Well, kind of.

You probably remember that Stow started doing karate just under two years ago (and that he had a totally awesome Nerf Karate Panda party for his eighth birthday). Well, he has continued to do karate, and since so much of Stow's life and routine has been turned upside down by the pandemic, we really wanted to make sure that he could still do it even during the shut down. Fortunately, he had the chance to keep up with lessons by following videos and practicing at home. And, once it was deemed safe for classes to start in person (with safety and social distancing protocols in place), we decided to slowly reintegrate him; we figured that his anxieties about the coronavirus and about socializing and about change would be enough to cause his head to explode if we just threw him back in to classes (that now looked very different due to COVID-related changes). So, the head of the karate school, Mr. N, kindly agreed to give Stow private lessons until he was ready to rejoin the group classes.

Stow practicing at home during the shut down.
Mr. N is a few years older than Ren with a white goatee and shaggy hair. He drives a beat-up van and plays in a rock band on the weekends. And, he's adamant about how things should go at his karate school. He asks parents (who he refers to as "rides") not to coach kids during or after class. His teaching methods require kids to be visually, auditorily, and physically engaged. And, he uses catch phrases about respect, hard work, memory, etc that they can apply to other aspects of their lives. 

Taro being entirely unhelpful.
And, by and large, what he does works. Though Stow has turned out to be a challenging case.

Initially, we thought he would do a couple of one-on-one lessons and then rejoin the classes, but as time has passed, the factors that cause Stow to struggle with karate have become clear. It has also become clear that he isn't entirely ready to rejoin his peers. Stow goes from having a terrific class on a Monday to having a disastrous one on a Wednesday. Ren and I could literally do the exact same thing to prepare Stow on both days and get vastly different results. One day, he could do all of the forms and call out the steps in order, and the next he might wander around the mat, crawl on the ground, or run out of the building. Since listening to instructors and showing respect are important parts of karate, the days when Stow doesn't behave are hard on everyone.

It takes about three months of consistent practice and doing well in class to advance from one "color" belt to the next, and there's always a point along the way where we really don't know if Stow will make it. While Stow will agree that he likes karate when he's doing it, and while he has progressed well with the forms, karate is hard for him because leaving the house is hard for him. In fact, if he had his way, he'd probably never leave the house at all. The house is a controlled and safe environment where he can get deep into a world he's created and where he doesn't have to deal with all of the chaos of other people's unpredictability. He doesn't have to figure out what to do with the fear, frustration, and confusion dealing with others causes him. Stow is very much a fight or flight responder when he's overwhelmed, and pretty much anything can overwhelm him.
Stow at a one-on-one practice.
That means, in the process of working toward any given belt, Stow will decide that he wants to quit karate--not because he doesn't like it but because because he is sure that the teachers and the other kids don't understand him and that he will get in trouble. In the one-on-one lessons, when Mr. N corrects him or tells him to try to do something better, sometimes Stow takes it well, and other times, it sends him spiralling out of control. One lesson, Stow flat-out refused to do anything from the start and only agreed to practice for the last ten minutes, when he realized that we weren't leaving until the lesson time had ended. Another, he got so upset that he stomped out to the parking lot and then back in again to yell at Mr. N. Given how tightly Mr. N runs his school, I was sure he would chuck us out for good after that particular class.

Though he has never admitted it, I am SURE all of this is frustrating for Mr. N. Fortunately, Mr. N has been teaching karate for a long time, and once he realized that we were committed to doing right by Stow while also not coddling him, he has worked hard to understand how to reach him. And since I know Mr. N is on board with trying to figure out how to help Stow succeed at karate, it's a little easier for me to feel ok pushing Stow out of his comfort zone.

That's how I found myself taking karate classes. To avoid a repeat of back-to-back classes where Stow refused to participate, Ren and I made a social story, talked about expectations, and provided opportunities for reward. When none of that worked, I unexpectedly announced, "Well, if you're not going to have a lesson, fine. At least I can."

Not knowing how Mr. N would feel about this sudden change of plans, I followed up with, "I mean, if it's ok with Mr. N."

"Sure," he said. "Cool."

And, that was the beginning of my career as an out-of-shape, inflexible karate mama.

Once Stow realized I was serious, he joined me on the floor. We did the warm up and the practice punches I'd watched him do a million times before. Then we moved into various stance drills and hand combinations. Two things surprised me. First, karate is really good exercise. And, second, it's a lot harder than it looks, especially for people with coordination challenges (LOL). I left my first karate practice with a whole new appreciation for what Stow has accomplished.

Some of Stow's belts (he has two more and will soon have another).
Since then, Stow has asked if I could join his class every time, and every time, Mr. N has graciously obliged. Not only that, he has spent time trying to teach my awkward self how to get better at karate. Stow still resists practicing or going to class when it will take him away from whatever world he's absorbed himself in, but on the whole, he has been a little more willing to be pulled away from those worlds now that he can teach me some karate.

I doubt I will ever get my own karate belt, but I am super proud that Stow has been able to do what it takes to achieve his next belt (RED!!) in a couple of weeks. I am also beyond grateful to Mr. N. It's hard to find a coach willing to teach Stow, and his willingness to keep trying means the world to us, even if Stow doesn't entirely understand how lucky he is.

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