It’s a randomly gorgeous morning in the middle of February, and we’ve interrupted start-of-class forms to stand outside the school and talk quietly in the cool breeze. I have no idea why, but he’ll tell me soon enough.
“Mommy …” he asks me, voice thick with the tears shining in his big brown eyes. The ones that look just like mine, if my eyes still had all that sweetness in them, “... when do I get to do the wooden dummy?”
Ah, there it is. He’d been playing siu nim tao and watching an older student play a form on the jong when he’d suddenly turned to me with that unmistakable I’m Overwhelmed face. Hence: outside.
I don’t have a good answer, so I give him the only one I know, “You’ll learn the jong when your Sifu says you’re ready.”
“But when will that be?” his face crumbles.
So I hug him and ignore the snot he’s smearing all over my shirt because that’s what moms of eight year old boys do, and I tell him, “Just keep training hard, buddy. Keep listening and trying. You’ll get there,” because that’s what sihings of frustrated sidais do. Or at least what this sihing does.
He sniffles, “So … when do I get a white shirt?”
That one I know. “When you’ve trained for a year, dude. You’re almost there; just a few more months to go.”
He looks at me like I’m very nice, but I’m also very crazy. A few months to a third grader is a few eternities. But at least it’s a more recognizable timeline to a tangible milestone than “when your Sifu says you’re ready”. He nods acceptance and giggles when I tickle him (that’s a mom thing, not a sihing thing). When he trots off to class a little sniffly, but ready to work, all I can do is sigh.
Because, oh wow, do I know that feeling. That feeling of wanting to be good at a thing, so you start learning how to do the thing, and you work really hard for what feels like a long time, only to find yourself not so much good as slightly less terrible.
It’s a complicated feeling. A frustrating, complicated feeling. I blame Hollywood.
See, my boy and I both grew up on a steady diet of movie training montages. I learned from a young age that all you need to go from Know-Nothing Chump to Total Badass is a quirky teacher, a few minutes of clever editing, and some inspirational powerchords.
It’s the same every time ...
PROTAGONIST: I want to learn how to do The Thing.
TEACHER: I will not teach you because you are too old or too angry, or maybe that’s me.
PROTAGONIST: But if you don’t teach me then there’s no movie.
TEACHER: Well, when you put it that way ...
PROTAGONIST: I have learned so much! I am now The Best Around at doing The Thing!
… and yet somehow I never questioned this process. But I really, really should have. Because now that I’m actually training to do a Thing, I have no realistic concept of time. Kung fu training is measured in years, not minutes, and there’s no music. I want to gnash my teeth and claw at the movie screen and demand to know: what, Protagonist? WHAT DID YOU LEARN? What epic skills could you have POSSIBLY ABSORBED during two-and-a-half minutes of HUNGRY FREAKING EYES?!
Where are your bruises? Your callouses? Your subtlely altered physique that makes all of your clothes fit just a little bit wrong?
Did you ever have to drag yourself to class by the scruff of your own stubborn neck and make yourself do the damn training?
Was it a shock the first time you got so sweaty during a workout that you woke up the next morning with cramps in every major muscle? Did you have to re-think everything you thought you knew about how to hydrate your body and how to wash salt stains out of cotton shirts?
Did you ever glare at your hands for refusing to do two different things at the same time? The hands that are perfectly capable of steering of a half-ton machine at highway speeds while simultaneously selecting and implementing the correct gear to keep that machine’s engine running, but somehow can’t pull off a tan dar without trying to double-punch? Those ridiculous, traitorous hands?
Was there ever a point where you did one part of the Thing so many times that it got boring, until someone suggested that you think of the motion as starting from the elbow instead of the wrist, and suddenly it was fascinating all over again?
How many times did you stand there, all sweat and no breath, avoiding your training partner’s gaze in the hopes of getting just a few more seconds to recover before you dove right back into the drill?
What about setbacks? Did you ever get injured? Were you never knocked so flat by illness that you were forced to skip training until you were well enough to stand upright again? And then when you finally got back to training did you gasp and twinge and limp through it because when you dipped into your internal well of stamina you found it had been drained bone fricking dry?
Did you stand awkwardly in the world’s clumsiest horse until your knees screamed and you finally realized OH, maybe I should fix my feet? And then did you think you had horse All Figured Out until one day an older student came along and very patiently dragged you all over the floor until you realized what you were doing wrong?
Speaking of other students, do you have any? Are they just off-camera and we don’t see them? Being a movie protagonist seems lonely. How are you learning every aspect of The Thing if you’re never getting anyone else’s perspective?
Have you ever relied on your own clumsy instincts to withstand a flurry of limbs wielded by a much more senior student? Did that sihing slip past your woefully insufficient guard to tap you on the chest not once, not twice, but three times before the screaming in your muscles finally forced you to call a halt during which you stood there, all baffled and breathless? Did you look at your sihing and gasp “One of these days, I’m gonna feel like I know what’s going on, right?”, and then she laughed and shook her head and said “When you do, let me know, because I still have no clue”?
Because that’s the thing about the movie montage: IT ENDS. Real training doesn’t.
Movie protagonists get to tie up their training in a neat little narrative bow; the music fades and the hero has achieved all the perfection that they need to triumph. If my montage ever ends, it’ll be because I ended it, not because I ran out of things to learn. In a month, in a year, in ten years, I’ll still be finding new things to work on.
Sometimes I, like my boy, face that never-ending road of learning that stretches out past the horizon and it all seems so incredibly daunting. I look at all the ground not yet covered and it feels like I’ll just never get there, like every step I’ve already taken, no matter how many, won’t ever be enough. It’s a bummer. A big, heavy, smothering, make-you-wanna-stand-outside-the-school-and-cry bummer.
Trying to train under the weight of all that self-inflicted discouragement is like trying to brush your teeth while eating oreos. Messy and gross and counterproductive as hell.
So I’m working on tearing my gaze away from that horizon and focusing on the patch of road that’s under my feet. Less worrying about when the hell I’m ever gonna get good at kung fu and more enjoying the drill that’s happening right now. Turns out, all the good stuff is in the montage. All the ups and downs, the thousand little triumphs for every thousand little hurts, the layer upon layer of fatigue and effort that eventually add up to real skill, all of it. The best things happen while Eye Of The Tiger is playing.
Hopefully, my boy will follow my lead - just knowing that he’s watching helps keep me on track. Because kids are always watching, and listening, and repeating what they’ve learned. Which can be awesome or it can land you in a parent-teacher conference. Or both!
Ultimately, I kinda feel bad for Protagonist. Once the montage is over, their journey ends. Maybe not until after a number of increasingly gawd-awful sequels, but eventually. Me, I get to keep going. And going. And going some more. All the going. For as long as I want or until my Sifu gets sick of me, whichever comes first.
Until then, I’ll do my best to forget all this montage crap and just train. I can’t promise there won’t be the occasional one of these, though:
|If you think I don’t have my very own Rocky Balboa grey sweats and Chucks, then we have not met.|