The Karate Kid and a Pizza Box (Lesson Two)

Nathan and Mason along with both dawgs came back up from the woods.  All of them had found it necessary to get in the creek while they were down there.  Cosmo Topper was the driest, but that accomplishment is only due to being timid around water.  Ashley Cooper has the same attitude about it you’d find in a muskrat.  The boys are boys, so no explanations about muddy creek banks are necessary.

The pizza box was in the trashcan.  Nathan wanted to know why I threw the number line away.  I think it was a mild joke about my tendency to run on a bit if I think there are things to be learned by knowing about whatever is rattling around in my head.  So as not to let him down, I went to the hall closet and took out a yardstick, and said:

“Because we don’t need the pizza box anymore.  Take a look at this.  The yardstick can be a lot of things.” and with a lunge like you might use in fencing:

“It can be a sword.  Or, a ruler to measure how long something is.  You can use it as a straight edge to draw a line, or it can be the line itself.”  I carried it to the coffee table, and continued:

“Once we know how wide this table is, we can use the center, or the halfway mark as our zero.”  

The flat surface of the table was twenty-six inches wide, so neither boy had trouble identifying “thirteen” as our new “zero”.

“Then,” I continued, “we can place other things like that book, or that coaster exactly three inches to the left or to the right of that mark.  Carpenters do this all the time.  It’s all about going plus or minus from our mark, so we’ll know where to make a cut, or another mark, or hang a picture.” 

Mason frowned, and said:

“Dad, Mama will be mad if you hang a picture on the coffe table!”

Nathan was thinking about the number line.  He again made a point of how none of this had made sense at school, and he said it in a way that made it sound like it was the teacher’s fault.  Mason chimed in about some teachers are just “gooder” at teaching than others, and began to give examples of some good and bad teachers.  Nathan joined in to mention the names of a couple of good teachers that didn’t always teach as good as they should have.  I was pleased to hear this, because it was unusual for Nathan to use the word “good” in the same sentence having anything to do with school.

I agreed that there is a range of competence, not just among teachers, but among people in general that is discernible.  Additionally, I threw out the idea that it is really up to the student to learn, whether the teacher can teach, or not.  They both looked at me as if that didn’t make any sense at all.  It was if they were saying: “Why, any fool knows it is always up to the teacher.  They’re the ones in charge, and it’s their responsibility to teach!”

I asked them:

“If you want to know something, or learn something, what do you do?”

All kinds of options came up: you can look at it and see if you can figure it out; you can see if there is a book or something where you can look it up, or you can ask somebody.  All of these are true.  But there is still something else, so I asked those two little boys:

“Aren’t you ever curious about something without somebody telling you to be?  Don’t questions form in your mind every now and then?  Don’t you think sometimes all by yourself?  Then who is in charge of your head?  Who really has the authority to decide what it is that YOU want to know?”

It didn’t take long for a response.  The answer was instantly from both of them almost at the same time, and unequivocally:


That moment was, probably for all three of us, the best thing that happened that day.  Wanting to press this permanently in their minds, I told them if you want to do something and do it, is the same as if you want to know something and learn it.  And therefore, it is your responsibility to find a way to learn whatever it is that you want to know.

Some teachers are better than others, but it is ultimately the responsibility of the willing student to learn.  If you learn it wrong, you miss out on the benefit of knowing it the right way.  Who suffers if you learn it wrong?  The student.  And, eventually anybody else they might try to teach it to might be equally handicapped.  So there is the responsibility for a teacher to teach, but there is also the responsibility for the student to learn.  Reasons, or excuses do not matter: what you learn is either true or not; right or wrong.  But either way, by a teacher, or on your own, what you know is what you’ve learned.

This brought us back to the movie.  In the early scenes the kid was less than enthusiastic about “wax on-wax off.”  I asked the boys if the teacher was having a whole lot of succes at that point with his student.  Both sons said: “No.”  Then I asked them:

“When was the old man ever able to teach the kid anything?”

Nathan said:

“When he decided he wanted to learn.”

This was a crucial moment.  I asked Nathan to say that again, and he did.  Then I asked Mason to say it, and by doing so, overturned his previous verdict that the only time the old man was ever able to help the boy was:

“When he jumped over the fence, and beat up the bad guys!”

About that time, two muddy dawgs came running into the living room.  The pups were in a playful mood, and my sons were laughing.  I was too.  I knew there would be no point in telling the dawgs that Brenda was not going to approve of their muddy paw prints in the living room, so I didn’t mention it.

I must shift a moment to a book I had been reading, or at least trying to read.  “The Book of Five Rings” by Miyamoto Musashi was written over three hundred years ago.  It is a book about strategy.  A friend of mine who has a reputation for reading good books sent it to me, so I figured it worth my time.  I struggled with it.

Early on, the author said it was important to begin with a set of principles.  It appeared to me that he said “the first thing you need to know…is everything”. I figured anyone who accomplishes that would a genuine “know-it-all”.  The more I read, the more confused I became.  How can you know everything, and how can accomplishing that be the first thing you do?

Most adults who choose not to converse with children are going to miss out on lessons that cannot be learned any other way.  Children can see things that adults have long lost the vision to recognize.  I think, but not absolutely sure, the reason for that is, children have not yet learned the crucial lesson so common to most adults: that we are not to look beyond the limits of what we are told we can and cannot do.

We talked about what happened when the old man fought the boy’s fight, and the boy allowed it.  We agreed that the old man could not help the boy in any permanent way, until the boy wanted to learn.  But so much more than wanting to learn, the kid had to believe he could learn.  Until that happened, the teacher could not teach.  Since then I’ve thought a lot about why my boys grasped this fairly well, but adults have so much trouble with it.  Maybe it goes back to the destructive process of lowering the threshold of our own expectations through becoming “educated”, but I could be wrong.

Nathan nodded, and I figured a light bulb was over his head just like in the cartoons.  Then, Mason surprised me when he came out of a deep study saying:

“Yeah, he didn’t really understand it until he’d learned it all.”

After a pause, I asked Mason to repeat what he’d said, and he did.  The light bulb over my own head exploded.  It’s okay, as I’m sure it had a crack in it anyway.  “…until he learned it all”, he’d said.  That was the ticket.  I went to the bookshelf (this house is full of them) to retrieve Miyamoto’s book.  I placed it on the table in front of my young sons, and asked that they take a look at it.  And further, if they read it, would they be kind enough to explain it to me sometime.

It was only a matter of days that the book was returned to me.  Both Mason and Nathan said they’d taken a look at it, ans declared that it was hard to figure out.  I’m sure they said that so I wouldn’t feel stupid, though I’m certain they must have gotten something from it.  Boys have a heightened sense of things relating to knights and samurai, and especially with the fantastic myths of dragons.  As we get older, the dragons begin to take on more human form, and eventually almost go unnoticed as they walk among us.

It was about then that the movie “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” hit the local theaters.  We went to see it, but we didn’t take the dawgs with us.  The movie was not rated as acceptable to canines like those that live at my house.  There were tricks and stunts about getting over fences, and through tight places, and our dawgs already know too much about that as it is.

The movie was clever and cute, but it wasn’t about ninja as much as it was about knights in armor (the samurai), and about fantasy.  So again, I tried to read “The Book of Five Rings”.  This time I tried to pay attention to lessons in strategy, but I’m a simple foot soldier; I’m a pawn, and never a knight.  So instead of focusing on the ways of the samurai, I decided to study the ninja.  I had a good teacher that lived right in my very own back yard–Ashley Cooper, the mutant Ninja Dawg.

She’s half Golden retriever, and half Rottweiler.  The fence around the property is no barrier to her.  She can dash over it, under it, around it, and though I’ve never witnessed, probably through it as well.  Like a ghost, she can be right there in your sight one minute, and disappear the next.  She has no history of hurting anyone, and is quite gentle with my children, but carries with her in her jaws, formidable weapons. Though she isn’t a cat, her paws have toenails that would impress a panther, and she can shake hands with as firm a grip as any politician, but seeks no office.  If there ever was to be a canine standard for ninja, Ashley Cooper was it.

Cosmo Topper’s mother was also half Golden Retriever, but the other half was Irish setter, which gave her a more streamlined look and lovely hair.  I met Topper’s mother.  She was refined and polite, and maintained an air of dignity.  I know nothing of his father except that he must have been able to run swiftly, and surely had a lot of black hair.  Topper was mostly black but with patches of light brown streaked with auburn, and other parts white as snow.  We thought him handsome enough for a dawg.

But unlike Ashley, Topper was no ninja.  He seldom snuck out of the fence, but guarded all things inside it with ferocity.  He was samurai.  Yet not all the time.  Because I had a hand in his raising, he has a tendency to be lazy, and affectionate sometimes.  I guess being handsome was not enough for him, but had to adopt some other traits of mine to go along with it.

The dawgs never showed any interest in the number line, and seemed to care even less about positive and negative integers.  I never saw either of them read books about arithmetic, or ask questions about the subject.  The Ninja Turtles came up in playful imagination with the boys, and sometimes the Karate Kid would be mentioned.  To talk about the number line always caused references to scenes like “wax on; wax off”, and brought about newer topics of learning how to direct energy in order to get the outcome you’re looking for.  We talked about how to know how to recognize both the sum, and the difference, and to understand that just adding zero never makes anything more positive.

There were two teachers in the Karate Kid story.  One was adding positive things to the set, and the other was adding negative things to the set.  One wanted to teach how to direct energy; the other simply how to use force.  One knew how to mange from a position of inward and outward strength, while the other thought power came from exploiting fear by threatening to do harm.  While this seems so easy to say with words, it must be hard to understand based on so much of what makes the news.  But two little boys seemed to have a handle on it.  I reckon I would never have been able to write it down had they not been here to teach me.

I thought again about ninja turtles and samurai, and lessons that can be learned.  I knew we hadn’t covered it all, not everything, not just yet.  There is something else, far beyond the story told in a movie to entertain children.  Little bits and pieces of memories jumped in and out of tune and focus.  Thoughts perhaps suppressed yet never laid to rest, barged into consciousness without invitation, then as quickly went away again.

My young sons seem so free of such things.  Their monsters are still yet imaginary.  So, what would be beyond the story?  I guess I would have to watch the children for a while, and see if they would teach me what it was.  Will it be everything?  Will it be the first thing I have to know, or should have known?  Whether it is or not, I’m sure I’ll never understand it completely…until I’ve learned it all.


4 responses to this post.

  1. This was beyond excellent. Instead of preaching to your kids you asked insightful questions that allowed them to discover the answers on their own. We’re all teachers. Parents, Teachers, Students. I wish more parents would read this blog post. I don’t have children but I try to teach my nieces and nephews about responsibility, accountability, and that decisions have consequences. Your boys are blessed to have a Dad like you. At my job in the museum I get many questions from students at the high school and college level. Most of the time their inability to read, analyze, think, proper research paper writing skills or lack thereof shock and scare me. Many times I have to remind them I can help you find the paintings and/or sculptures but I cannot do the homework assignments for you. Then when I see parents who accompany their kids to the museum practically do the work for them I really worry. What happens when the children grow up? When they come into the workforce do they think their bosses or co-workers will do their jobs for them? My Dad helped me do my homework by making me go to those Encyclopedia Britannica. No PCs, Internet, Email or Google back in the 60s & 70s. Daddy always said get something in your head not just on your head. My Dad always encouraged me to be creative and most of all to use my brain. More fathers need to take a larger role in their children’s lives the way you do.


  2. Posted by Marlene Humberd on February 14, 2012 at 12:20 am

    ” Out of the mouths of babes ! ” Small children look at the world with eyes opened in wonder …eager to learn and explore . In many cases there is not a parent willing to guide and encourage them [ perhaps the parent(s) did not have guidance when they were young ] . The sense of wonder disappears, and the children don’t care about “learning it all “anymore. That is when a special teacher can make all the difference in the world in helping the child and the parents. As parents we need to let go of worrying about superficial things and caring about the opinions of people who don’t really care about us . Our children should be the top priority in our lives… to love , to teach, to enjoy , to listen to , and most of all ,to help us remember OUR sense of wonder. Their opinion of us is all that really matters . I think in your situation, Van , it is a win -win… for your boys and you . ; )


  3. Posted by Robin Leonard on March 14, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    Lots to learn here. Thanks! And with humor thrown in–even better!


  4. thanks .. made my day


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