If you're going to be a parent, don't plan on making promises to your kids. Just don't. It'll save everyone a lot of grief. Don't pay any attention to those crazy-making insurance or financial planning ads where the parents watch the children lovingly and the voice over says things like, "I promise your heart will never be broken. I promise to be there when you need me. I promise to make millions in the stock market to buy you anything your little heart desires." You know you can't make those kind of promises, and I'm here to tell you to not even make the promises you're sure you can keep.
Judo has turned out to be not exactly John's thing. He goes, enjoys it, and comes home, but he seems to be lacking the basic idea of friendly aggression toward strangers in a controlled envrionment. He is the youngest in the class, and one of two beginners. When doing the exercises, he is awkward and self-conscious. When someone tries to throw him, he goes helpfully limp rather than actively taking the fall and jumping up again, and when they practice holds, he carefully nestles into the other person, so as to give his partner a better hold. The other beginner, a first-grader named Hunter, is similarly considerate and quiet. Watching them battle each other is like looking at a posed boxing photograph from the 1890s: They each grab the other's judogi, plant their legs, and assume thoughtful, patient expressions, focusing on the middle distance, and each waits for the other to instigate some kind of action.
John has allowed as to how he might prefer gymnastics to judo, and how he can't wait until spring so he can start practicing soccer and baseball again. But he has put up with judo without complaint or shirking, and with next week's class being the last, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
A few weeks ago, another sensei came to class with Sensei Usual. Sensei Teasing is compact and loud and thinks teasing is funny. Many kids react to him well -- he is a mean teaser, but fair, if that makes sense. He also brought two of his own students, who are in high school. He is just the kind of person to put John on edge.
When we walked into the dojo (well, the wrestling room at the local high school), John froze when he saw the teenagers. He was sure there was some kind of unannounced test coming up, wherein he would face off against one of the teens and show how he can throw one over his shoulder. (I know this was what he was thinking, because I often had the same train of thought at that age.)
"It's OK, John," I said, kneeling down to talk with him. "The senseis know that you're not old enough to go against them. It would be dangerous. That's why they just make you practice on each other. It's not big deal; they're there to learn too, and practice, and learn how to become senseis themselves. And if they *do* try to make you practice against them, I will step in and take you right home, because they're not supposed to do that. I promise."
He believed me. You see where this is going.
At the end of every class, the students pair off to battle each other in front of the class. There was an odd number of children last night, and John was the last to go. And who did he have to face?
Bewildered, John bowed and stepped forward. At the command to start, he stood, staring at Sensei Teasing, obviously ready to flee. Sensei Teasing, to his credit, was helpful and took a fall, but John was at an utter loss about what to do. He was near tears -- but that grown-up almost-crying where your face goes totally blank, not the wrenched-up face of a kid trying not to cry. He wanted to leave so badly. He sat and looked at Sensei Teasing, who ultimately pretended to fall asleep waiting for John to do something.
This went on for some time, during which I kept making these involuntary gasping noises that I suppose were meant to be laughs. Finally they ended the match, and dismissed the class. John pulled on his cowboy boots and we left.
He seemed to be OK and was talking about everything but judo as we walked down the hallway. Then I said, "John, I'm sorry you had to face Sensei Teasing. But you did a good job staying with it."
He took a deep breath and nodded. I said, "I know I'd said once you wouldn't have to fight the big kids. I bet you felt pretty scared when you had to fight Sensei."
He nodded again, swallowing.
"I'm sorry," I said again. "Do you need a hug?"
He paused and said, "No." Then, "I just feel very small."
So did I.