My first class teaching T’ai Chi to K through 5th graders at St Paul’s Lutheran School was a rude awakening. The rigorous obedience and self-discipline during my years of training under Chinese masters from 1965 to 1984 was a far cry from how academic teachers handled the elementary school students at St Pauls Lutheran School in 1998. My Chinese masters showed me a pose and made me sit in it for an hour, or kicked me in the shins mercilessly. This sort of rigor was not an option with my K through 5th graders in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Not even close.
Yelling and threatening often overshadowed the teaching of the subject. “If you won’t listen, you will have to sit over there, away from the group!” I couldn’t even get them to line up and face me.
When showing them a posture, some would simply stand up, slouch, and even fall on the floor. Any hesitation or wavering on my part was an opportunity for them to talk out of turn, jump around aimlessly, or rough-house with each other.
The T’ai Chi notion of peace and harmony was fading rapidly. I was becoming exhausted and dreaded facing that disparate band of rowdies. The whole idea was backfiring in my face. The principal had to come to my rescue, shouting threats and orders from the rear, more times than I care to recall. I knew I needed to create a seamless lesson plan that would override the need for punitive, authoritarian discipline.
In order to calm myself and to keep up with my own training, I would arrive early and practice my form silently as the kids marched off the school bus. I hoped beyond hope that they would get a sense of the ideas and moves in T’ai Chi from watching me. It also helped me collect my thoughts for the day’s lesson, and face the mob with a measure of civility.
I quickly learned that different age groups required different programs. The four and five year olds became a separate a group I later named “Pre-T’ai Chi.” The six to twelve year olds could all understand and copy at about the same level, and could be taught together. But arranging them so they could all see and copy, tall in back, short in front, was the first ordeal.
Asking for short kids in front would cause the boys to fight their way to at least the center, if not the back. Clearly being small was undesirable. Later, the bigger kids would mentor littler ones, like mini-masters and disciples, but this was after they began to grasp T’ai Chi, and had something real to teach. When this finally happened, I was extremely pleased.
There were many memorable moments teaching “Pre-T’ai Chi” to a group of four year olds. As was my habit, I began class with some qigong breathing. I told them to imagine they were trying to not pee as they inhaled and to imagine they had made it to the restroom and were peeing on the exhalation.
I use this analogy with adults to this day, although never with the following results. One four year old simply peed on the floor. Whether she was inhaling or exhaling, I will never know. Fortunately, each kid in that that age group had a change of clothes.
All the kids loved to describe the movements and warm-ups with imagery from their lives, rather than from the lives of ancient Chinese people. “Repulse the Monkey” became “Serve the Pizza,” and “Play the Pipa” became “Play the Bass.” Arm swings were like the action of the washing machine, and with the waist rotations, we tried to stretch our tummies to be as fat as Santa Claus.
I experimented with teaching a class of third through fifth graders to do seated meditation. I showed them the alert Buddha-like posture I had learned at a Zen Center. Like the acolyte in attendance at the center did to me, I gently tapped anyone who was slumping or looking around on the shoulder with a ruler.
I came up with the brilliant idea of letting the most still, attentive-looking meditator be the bearer of the ruler and tap others who were slouching or distracted. This was a distinctly failed experiment. Those taps on the shoulders were more like whacks, increasing in intensity till I was forced to retrieve the ruler and the rule.
Parents called the school, asking “What sort of class is this where kids are hitting each other with sticks?” Competitive meditating is an obvious contradiction in terms, and was not repeated, although the kids loved it and kept asking to do it again. Each of them wanted to be singled out to hit the others.
T’ai Chi class would follow after ten minutes or so of qigong or pure meditation. If it was a nice day, students were instructed to line up to go outside. The simple announcement, “Line up to go outside,” created a mad rush to the front door, as if the building were on fire and it was the only way out.
I came up with what I thought was a clever ploy. I pointed out that the back of the line was far more peaceful and quiet, with less risk of getting shoved or even pushed over … which resulted in a mad rush for the back of the line. Trying to drill kids through lengthy, repetitive warm-ups and stretches caused them to tire before we even got up to the T’ai Chi. With kids, especially in this electronic age of instant gratification, everything has to be abbreviated and to the point. One third as many warm-ups and stretches were about right.
The weather in Northeastern Pennsylvania during the school year is inclement more often than not. T’ai Chi was often relegated to a large, rectangular room with a wood floor, used for school gatherings. Indoor classes gave me more control over the whole group, while outdoors it was a little harder to rein them all in to move together. Neither group responded well to my trying to make them copy slow, methodical movements. There were always a few notable exceptions – the kids every teacher dreams about – the totally attentive quick studies, and both limber and strong. But it was all the others — the challenging ones, the ones who would refuse to participate if not coerced or entertained, who would whine and fall on the floor — who made the Pushing for Peaceprogram come to fruition.