Thanks to David Carradine and the Kung Fu series these have become nearly immortal words. Master Kan tells young Caine that when "Grasshopper" successfully snatches the pebble it will be time for him to leave the temple. This time finally comes but there are many fruitless attempts in the meantime.
There was a time, so long ago it seems like another lifetime, that I was once "Grasshopper" to a Master. Hard as it is to believe, it's true. The best of us have to start somewhere. I encountered Master Don this weekend. I was doing some instructor training and he was teaching a class at the same site. I haven't seen Don in a while. Whenever I do, old memories come flooding back. Grasshopper has since surpassed the Master. That doesn't change the fondness and gratitude I still feel for Don.
Master Don is the greybeard in the first picture. The other instructor is Alain, a French Canadian whom I've had a large share in training. What makes my experience with Don so special is that I was lucky to have ever received it from him in the first place.
Have you ever heard it said of someone that they don't suffer fools gladly? That's Don to an extreme degree. Don has one focus. That's offering the best class possible to his group of students. Anything that interferes with that is considered a major annoyance. Don's very personable, extremely bright and articulate, and has the ability to understand exactly where each student's at during the weekend. I wish his jokes were of the same caliber. Oh well, no one's perfect! Until he retired, Don was the head of the Child Development Department at a community college. Don's a top notch instructor on many levels. I consider him to have truly earned the title of Master.
Now, you'd think an instructor like this should be training newcomers. After all, who better to get these new people started than a true master of his craft? You'd think so, but you'd be wrong.
Nowadays, instructor assignments are done from a central location. Headquarters handles all that now. Not so way back when. Each site had a site coordinator who handled all the local things like scheduling. Don was fiercely proud of his site. There was one instructor whom Don wanted to work with. He had one backup if the first instructor wasn't available. There were a few other instructors who Don approved of. These were assigned the rest of the classes. These few people taught almost all the classes at the site. Outsiders weren't welcome. Don didn't want to take a chance with anyone screwing up the high standards of his site. He also really didn't have the patience to nurture a new instructor. That made an interesting contrast. Don had all kinds of patience for his students but not for on-the-job trainees.
These days we start new instructors just on the range. Their first few classes are done with a Mentor nearby for support and backup. After successfully completing an internship, they then move on to learning the classroom. Not in my day. We were given some training and then sent out to do it all. Senior instructors were saddled with newbies. Their written evaluations were sent back to headquarters. Based on this feedback, headquarters decided when a new instructor was finally ready to sign off. After that they'd no longer have to work under the eyes of a Senior instructor. It could be a long process.
Enter me. A new instructor fresh out of my preparation classes. Somehow the Director talked Don into letting me come teach under his watchful eye. Don happened to have a class where his first and second choices weren't available. I was supposed to teach classroom while Don watched. At the same time, I faced the challenge of holding up my end of the range when the students were on the bikes. Don would rather have teeth pulled than sit and watch someone else teach his students in the classroom. His first words to me were,
"You'd better not screw anything up!!"
Ok. My very first class. No pressure. I'd heard of this guy. Had I ridden an hour just to come here to be abused and ridiculed? There were still two more days of training. Would I spend 6 hours commuting on my bike to endure 16 hours of hell at the hands of an impatient perfectionist? I was going to be evaluated by headquarters based on feedback from this man. Would his attitude result in my getting a bad review no matter how hard I tried? It sure looked like it. Thus were the circumstances for my very first class. Not a promising start, I told myself.
On the other hand, I've had some life experiences that conditioned me to perform at a high level despite tremendous negative pressure. I've written about that in previous posts so I won't go into it again. Suffice it to say, I'm very tough mentally and not easily intimidated. Sure, I'd need refinement and knowledge, but I was sure I could do this with the talents and skills I had. So I steeled myself and went for it despite the "old man". I say that because Don's looked exactly the same from the first time I met him.
Taking a deep breath, I started my classroom session with the 24 students. Pretty soon I had them laughing and involved with me. I watched a really strange thing happening in the back of the room. Don's face was drawn and dark in the beginning. Little by little I saw his face lighten. Way in the back of his brain there must have been this small thought. Something to the effect that this might not be quite as painful as he originally expected.
Long story short, we got through the weekend fine. Did I make a mistake or two? Dang right! Fortunately they weren't major blunders. What really blew me away is that Don invited me back!!!
I ended up teaching 23 classes at that site my first year. The first dozen or so were with Don. After I got signed off, which was a record time for a new instructor by the way, Don did classroom and I worked with him on the range. For the majority of the rest of the classes I did classroom, too. Don also kept me there for the second year. I think that year was over 30 classes for me. By then, headquarters had invited me to start reaching out for other opportunities and I parted from Don's site. Most instructors teach about 10 classes a year. By the end of my second year I had the equivalent of 5 years or so teaching experience. Not to mention the accelerated learning curve I'd been subjected to.
Today I have more certifications and privileges than any other of the roughly 150 instructors, including Master Don. That's not meant to be bragging. It's a preface for my next statement. Whatever I am today is because of Don. He saw a lot of potential and warmed up to me. Once that happened I received a training and education that was a tremendous gift. Don was a hard task master. He didn't cut me much slack. Actually, none at all! My demos better be exactly precise. As he told the students to look for something at a particular time I'd better be doing it right then. If a student failed it had better be because they just didn't have it in them to succeed. God forbid it be because I didn't do a good enough job of coaching!! You get the idea, I think.
Setting high expectations for me made me reach higher than I would probably ever have tried for on my own. I admit that I'd work harder to master something just to spite him sometimes. Spite tempered with deep respect.
"You said I couldn't do this? Watch this, you #$%#@^!"
During the first few classes I had trouble with the offset cone weave demonstration. One side of the range had the small offset weave and went uphill. The other side of the range had the large offset weave and went downhill. I was forever not carrying enough speed uphill and getting too much downhill. I'd practice on a site close to home and do it perfectly. Problem was, this site was flat. Once I got back to Don's site, I'd have troubles.
One day, in my frustration, I told the students to leave the bikes on the range when they got done riding. Don looked at me with a puzzled expression. Usually, we'd have them ride the bikes to the storage area. Since this was quarter mile away from the range, it saved us a lot of walking. It was bad enough bring bikes out in the mornings with no students. I was determined to get this demo right. Partly because of my own desire for mastery. Mostly because the looks I got from Don when I made a mistake nearly burned my face off!
I rode every bike through the weave circuit four times. Four times through, ride to the storage area, walk the quarter mile back to the range, and ride the next bike through four times. By the time I was done I had completed nearly fifty circuits and walked over three miles. Guess what? I conquered the demo. What's more, I could do it on any bike we had. My personal dragon had been slayed. By the way, during the classroom session Don had watched me from the window. The next morning he literally patted me on the back and said,
"Saw what you did yesterday. Also saw that you got it down. I'm impressed."
It was a rare instant of praise. The absense of negative feedback meant you were ok.
This wouldn't have worked for most new instructors. A first experience like mine would have crushed them. I was hungry to learn and I think Don was sort of pleased to pass along a legacy to someone he considered worth his efforts. Together we built a foundation for me that was easy to build on later.
A lot's changed over the years but Don's still teaching. I've called in a couple of favors and gotten a break from working with new instructors at the end of May. I'm going to be teaching with Don for the first time since I was new. He's doing classroom, of course!
I've snatched the pebble from your palm, Master. I shall keep the pebble as a precious momento. Thank you, Don!
Miles and smiles,