Retirement is something that most people look forward to and spend their lives trying to last until. It’s often seen as the reward we get for spending our lives toiling away; it’s the carrot dangling at the end of the very long stick, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s envisioned as a time of kicking back and relaxing, of traveling and visits to kids and grand-kids and collecting all those fat Social Security and pension checks.
And then there are the people like me.
If you sat me down in front of a judge and jury and swore me in, I’d have to say that I started teaching martial arts when I was 15 years old. It wasn’t anything to write home about, though – just my teacher telling me (a brown belt in Chinese Kenpo) to take the white belts through their paces. So, we’ll say 15 years of age. Subtract that from the age I announced (mainly to myself) my “semi-retirement” – 48 – and you get 33 years of teaching.
33 years. Until the advent of the 20th century that was the life expectancy (from birth) of most people in the world. A Canadian Goose holds the record for longevity for its species (in captivity) – 33 years. Tigers and lions die before they reach 33 years (25-30 years).
But me? I spent 33 years teaching. Thirty-three years trading my hard-earned knowledge for extremely thin dimes. Thirty-three years of putting my heart and soul into transmitting my knowledge into not-always-so-receptive minds and not-always-so-suitable bodies. Thirty-three years of sweat and blood, thirty-three years of living, eating, breathing and sleeping martial arts instruction.
In the beginning, it was a trip. To have the power to shape other minds, to give them the tools to defend themselves – this was surely Heaven! My first school was a loft in New York City’s Greenwich Village (back when lofts were still the province of artists and anarchists) and I’ll never forget the two months I spent, part-time between college classes and teaching at my Sifu’s school, fixing that loft up so that I could both live and teach there. It was a labor of love – if you had asked me to paint that 6,000 square feet with a Q-Tip I would have gladly agreed, that’s how taken I was with the whole idea of teaching.
I finally got the space ready, sleeping on a surplus Army cot in a corner for the duration, and one day early in 1977 opened my doors to my students. I taught them Yang Taijiquan the way my teacher had taught me, and in doing so I felt like I had been elevated to the role of Honorable Defender of the Faith – I was part of the long chain of teachers preserving the inner-most secrets of my art.
I ordered an extra-large pepperoni pizza after class as a reward. It arrived cold. With no pepperoni.
But nothing could take away the rush I experienced that first day, a day that would be followed by more than 12,000 similar days in six different states and seven different schools. Each school was unique in its location, in its physical layout – the loft as I mentioned was huge; my school in Texas was a meager 800 square feet. My school in California had classes held by my very own in-ground pool with tropical landscaping, a gazebo, and a waterfall; in Florida it was a palm-tree covered courtyard where I conveyed the Secrets of the Centuries, going into the studio proper only when the rain or the bugs got to an overwhelming state.
One school in New Jersey, teaching mainly thugs that wanted the upper-hand on the street and the crazies that wanted something suitable to use in their bouncer jobs. That school was a storefront with a rolling metal shutter over the entire front facade – if I hadn’t used it my school would have been gone in the morning. Here in Pennsylvania, I had two schools, one an old sewing factory (once again a loft living arrangement upstairs with the studio downstairs) and the other, part of a huge industrial complex that had been re-born as a series of individual small businesses.
So each school had it’s little differences, but in the end it’s just a space to teach. The students, though, were always unique. My pride, along with my head, swelled up to Titian proportions when I found that a class of autistic teenagers and young adults had been chosen as showing the most development of any physical education program in the state; I hit the depths of despair when one of my students, a 16-year-old girl who was a prodigy at martial arts, committed suicide after being abused and homeless for too long.
There was a lot of laughter over the years as well as a lot of frustration and a little bit of glorious pride in the “children” that I helped grow to “adulthood” through the arts. My students who became teachers have now turned out their own teachers, so I have that grandfatherly glow to hold onto also.
So why would I leave all this? I was “only” 48 – hell, you don’t retire in the “real” world until you’re what – 49? 50?
Why I Retired
I left because of a very simple reason, albeit one that many outside the arts wouldn’t understand. This has been confirmed by the large number of people that, upon learning I just walked away from my own business, took a few steps backward and shook their heads in pity, as if to say “That poor, poor man – he obviously needs professional counseling”.
I left because I refused to water-down my art. I left because there were so few students that were serious enough to invest the time and energy necessary to learn the whole complex web of interlocking disciplines that make up the Taoist arts. I didn’t just “teach Tai-Chi”; I offered a curriculum consisting of Yang and Chen styles of Taijiquan, Baguazhang, Hsing-Yi, several styles of Qigong, Taoist philosophy, Feng Shui and Traditional Chinese Medicine, the last itself divided into acupuncture, acupressure, massage, herbs and energy work. Not complete courses in the TCM, of course – I wasn’t an accredited school for that nor did I wish to be – but enough of an exposure that my students could see the multiple connections among all these modalities as well as with the martial side of their education.
What I found was pretty much on a par with what Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, one of my later teachers, has discovered in his attempt to create an old-school, intensive-training, 10-year curriculum at his retreat in California. He started out with about two dozen students at the opening of his school in 2008.
He now has three. Three students that have stuck with their commitment to spend 10 years of their lives mastering his art. Dr. Yang has gone to some lengths explaining what he thinks are the causes of this poor showing – they boil down to the lack of physical and spiritual abilities of much of our current society, the poor economy and the fast-food mentality of the student population. Why spend 10 years attending some remote mountain-top retreat when you can enroll in Joe’s Dojo down the street and in 3 years have your Black Belt?
But if I know Dr. Yang I know he’ll never compromise. He’s already made what is perhaps the only concession he’ll ever make – he’s starting a FIVE-year program. If that doesn’t pan out he’s already said that he’ll close the school down rather than dilute his teachings any further.
That’s the same route I took, and I don’t regret it. I don’t have a pension, it’s years until I can touch my Social Security – if it’s even there when I get to the window – and I don’t have a large stash of old currency stored in shoeboxes up in the ceiling tiles. What I DO have is the knowledge that I helped a lot of people along their journeys, I was always honest with myself and with them, and I didn’t ever compromise.
I think that entitles me to a little rest.