Our classes are held in a pretty modest shared space. We train in the upstairs room of the Keith Anderson Community House, a big, old building that has been at various times a church, a meeting hall and town offices. We share our room with a community theatre group and a ballet school. I like the space, though, for a number of reasons. It is open and airy. The ceilings are high. It has a great, polished wooden floor. Its tall windows allow plenty of light. I like it for another reason, too. Our overhead is cheap and I'm not fancy.
I should explain, I guess, why this is important - actually why it is very important - to me. A few years ago a business marketing journal published a series of articles on the martial arts industry in America. It stated that up to sixteen percent of Americans would engage in some form of martial arts training at some point in their lives. That's about one out of every six people. It also stated that participation in martial arts training correlates strongly with family income and socio-economic status. That is, the wealthier your family is the more likely you are to practice martial arts. Since relatively few kids are affluent this means that a fair number of wealthy people practice martial arts, but most poorer people do not.
Yet other studies have demonstrated the power of the martial arts to transform the lives of vulnerable people. The martial arts can have significant benefits for all people, but they are especially beneficial for people with health and fitness issues, for those who suffer from physical and emotional abuse, and for those who are most vulnerable in our society - the kids we term "at-risk". Those kids, often from poor families, who are at-risk of dropping out of school, engaging in substance abuse, committing crimes and violence are often excluded from extra-curricular programming that could help them because of the instability in their lives. Wealthier kids from more stable environments are more likely to participate in martial arts even though the martial arts can have more consequential impacts on those who are excluded. There are a host of reasons why this is so, but there is only one of those reasons that I can have some limited control over - the issue of cost. I want to keep our overhead low, so that as many people can participate in our classes as possible.
Now, I'm not a softy when it comes to giving hand-outs. I've worked hard for what I've achieved and I believe in working hard for the American Dream. There isn't much that ticks me off more than seeing a fat guy panhandling in front of Wal-Mart smoking a $7.00 pack of cigarettes when there are help wanted signs on the windows of six stores in town. But I know what it's like to be poor and I know what it's like to have someone give you chance to work hard to better yourself. I want to give people that chance.
When I was kid my family struggled. Social scientists today talk about ACEs or Adverse Childhood Experiences. They tabulate these to determine a child's potential for risky behavior and to determine the obstacles to that child's success. Well, ACEs, I had 'em. Divorce - check. Low society-economic status - got it. Periods of residential instability, food insecurity, domestic violence, substance abuse in the home - check, check, check, check. I knew how to make macaroni with those big blocks of yellow government cheese. I knew how to dodge the birthday party and Christmas present questions as a kid. But I was very fortunate in a number of ways. I had a loving parent who worked hard to better herself and I found a home of sorts in the little all-purpose room of my local YMCA where I was able to enroll "on scholarship" in a martial arts class.
When I was about thirteen my family moved to a new town. My kids, whose lives are a lot different than mine, are amazed when I tell them that it was, I think, my fifteenth or sixteenth move. I didn't know anyone, but I had a new younger step-brother who had some childcare at the local YMCA. One Saturday morning I hung around after dropping him off. I watched some older guys play basketball, gawked at the weight room, and eventually wandered to the back room where a martial arts class was in session. I watched until the end of class through the open door and went back and watched again the next week. A few parents watched the Saturday morning class, which was mostly kids and teens, and one of them asked me why I wasn't out there.
I stammered some reply and left. I didn't know any of the kids in the class or any of the parents watching. I didn't know what martial art was being practiced. I did know, however, that we couldn't afford whatever a class cost (the princely sum of $22.00 a month it turns out), that I didn't have a suit to practice in, and that I probably wasn't supposed to be hanging around when my step-brother was the kid who was supposed to be at the Y.
Later that week my mom received a call from a staff member at the YMCA. Apparently someone had asked about me and the Y had tracked me down through my step-brother. There must have been a conversation that I was not privy to, but my mom explained to me that I could join the Saturday martial arts class if I wanted, but not the evening classes (I didn't even know they had any) for free! She was a little worried, but happy that I had found something to take an interest in. The rest, as they say, is history.
The next Saturday I stood in the back row of the class holding up my sweatpants with one hand because I didn't have a pair with a string in the waistband and the safety pin I'd put in them had bent. I learned front stance and front kick and the the form, Basic One. When I seemed discouraged my instructor didn't yell, but just said, "try". When I failed he smiled and said, "try again." When I succeeded he smiled and didn't say anything at all.
I kept at it as other kids came and went. After a couple of months my parents bought me a karate gi and I don't think there's a uniform I was more proud to wear than that one until many years later when I graduated from the police academy. The next summer, when at 14 I was old enough for a work permit, I was able to get a summer job and help pay for classes. I was able to practice three times a week, two nights with the adults and Saturday morning with the kids and teens. I loved it. I grew from it. I became committed to something that taught me discipline and respect.
I was only able to have that experience because whoever ran programming at the YMCA allowed me to slide into a class for free. I wasn't a perfect kid - I fought, drank, and did some risky things - and I hesitate to think what I would have been up to if I hadn't been loyal to Saturday morning martial arts. Later, when I began to help instruct that same Saturday morning class I knew how it important it was. I knew how important it had been to me.
So, I teach my classes at the Keith Anderson Community House in a room we share with a theatre company and a dance class. It's pretty spartan, but that suits me just fine. And I keep our overhead low, so I don't ever have to turn away that kid that's peeking in through the door. It's not about the trappings, but about the training. And I've never been very fancy.