Driving down the street, I turned right and felt my car labor up the hill. I dropped the stick shift into second gear and sped up before I realized I had passed the house I was looking for. My tires crunched the gravel until they halted. I stepped out of my car and saw a set of stairs that led up to what I thought to be the front door.
This part of Oakland seems nice, I thought. I wasn't sure why that thought buzzed in my head. Maybe because I opened the trunk and brought out hitting pads and didn't want to start a fight. Not that I couldn't take care of myself. My car could be a good getaway vehicle.
I walked up the stairs and remarked at how quiet the street was. Once at the front door, I could see through the screen door an old Chinese gentleman sitting in his cushy chair. His trim hair was as white as the white marble rocks that paved the front of the home. His wife, I assumed, approached the door. Her hair complemented his, but permed. I think. What spurred in my mind was her impending accent. In fact, there was no doubt that she would greet me with an old thick Chinese accent. I wasn't afraid of not understanding her as much as not liking Chinese accents. Especially thick ones. Don't ask me why.
She smiled. "You must be Jimmy. Tony is waiting for you. Common in," she said in perfect English.
There wasn't a drop of an accent. If I closed my eyes, the last image I would expect to see was an elderly Chinese woman. The next thought in my mind was that her English was probably better than mine.
Tony's grandfather stood from his chair and shook my hand and welcomed me in. Also in perfect English. Was I in the Twilight Zone?
No. But this assignment was about to teach me three life lessons.
That was my first: What I see in contrast to what really is can and often be two different things.
Truth be told, I was a little nervous. Taking on a paying client was new to me. Not only that, but I had to figure out how to imbue this Tony with confidence while teaching him how to be a lethal weapon.
Down this narrow hallway that splintered off into bedrooms strolled a skinny thirteen-year-old Chinese boy, standing about five feet tall. His eyes were heavy and hair matted from his nap, which I eventually found out to be a daily habit. We greeted each other, and Tony led me down a steep set of stairs.
We had met once before at my best friend's going away party, Tony's former martial arts teacher. And mine. Penn was chasing his Hollywood dreams and was leaving for London to study theatre and drama at the famed The Old Vic. His departure had been dramatic for me because I was losing a close friend, and he gave me little guidance of how to continue the martial arts training of his clients he had gifted me. This added to my nervousness. Why? Both Penn and I had been throwing around the idea of opening our own school that not only delved into self defense, but also addressed issues that these kids might be facing. That of course went out the window when Penn had decided to go to London. Now, I didn't want to screw Tony up as a person. I had issues of my own with no concrete idea on how to solve them. So I had been trusted to solve Tony's? Good luck kid.
"This is where Penn and I would have our lessons," Tony stated.
We ended up in the basement that was filled with a lot of nick knacks that only an old couple who had been together for decades could collect. Toys from the past were stashed in shelves along side old books. Boxes and crates were shoved against the wall, and an old Chinese calendar hung along side faded pictures. There was so much stuff, I couldn't recall what color the walls were. What floor space we had was enough to run basic drills, which was fine, but when we shifted to movement drills, I would need more room.
"Oh, they can move their car from the garage if we need more space," Tony said, referring to his grandparents.
I didn't really know what to say except for, "Fabulous."
What peaked my interest was a door on the back wall. It just sat there, waiting to be opened. For some reason it looked ominous because nothing blocked access to it, despite all of the stuff packed into this tiny space.
Since this was our first official lesson, I wanted to spend time assessing his abilities, which helped lower any student's guard, so I could converse with Tony and try and figure out who this skinny kid was. I slipped my hands into my striking pads and held them up a little higher than his height. He struck the pads with pretty good efficiency and power for his size. His pad work filled the small basement with explosive sounds like firecrackers. I wanted to say he could beat up little girls now, but this was our first lesson, and I didn't know if he could take my sarcasm. Yet.
The door kept stealing my attention. It was a few feet off the ground. So to step inside, someone would have to climb in. And it wasn't a normal door like those that led into bedrooms or bathrooms. It was squarish. Why was that?
"What's behind the door," I asked.
A veil of coldness draped down Tony's thin face. His eyes seemed to darken and his shoulders tightened toward his chest. "I don't know. I don't go in there."
Images of dead bodies sparked in my mind.
"Where does it lead?" I prodded.
Tony shrugged. "Under the house?"
"Have you seen what's in there?"
Tony took a few steps away from the door and gazed at it as if he was seeing a long dead tormentor come back from the netherworld. "Someone might be living under there."
What was interesting was there had been no easy way of getting under the house other than through that door. So where did this poor kid get the idea that someone could be living under there like a troll?
As my weekly lessons continued, there was one simple truth I had found out about this kid. Fear was a very real thing that he had been living with for a large part of his life. It had to have originated from somewhere. Tony lived in a very safe neighborhood where the idea of a robbery was sinister. I mean, he attended private school. His parents were well-to-do. He had friends.
Tony was close to his older sister who had Hollywood aspirations as well. Crystal had talked shop with Penn when he was Tony's teacher. She seemed well adjusted, aware enough to know what she wanted, and had a healthy social life. He often talked about her and had the normal brother/sister conflicts that all siblings have. During times of struggle, he would go to her for advice. It's heartwarming to know that he still does to this day.
His father was a restauranteur at a well known eatery. He was a tall man of six-feet, the shortest among his brothers. His demeanor was gentle and friendly and giving. I had never heard a harsh word come from his mouth. Except when talking about his daughter's then boyfriend. If anything, Tony inherited his father's temperament and eventually, his height. Yes, Tony would outgrow me. Then I met Tony's mother. Talk about ominous doors. I'm not referring to Norman Bates kind of relationship. But...
Tony's mother worked as an assistant D.A. for the City of San Francisco. She had prosecuted people that horror movies were based on. And like any civil servant, she was overworked and stressed. But both parents were on top of their kids' needs and education. The mother more intensely, like the military's Apache helicopter. To say she was overbearing was understating things, like saying Bruce Lee was some Asian dude. I understood, coming from a Chinese family myself, that overbearingness had come from a deep love and want for her kids to be successful in life.
This was when I learned my second life lesson: Children are people too. I watched Tony struggle with the constraints his mother placed on him. And I watched the struggle she had with her son, trying her damnedest to mold him into the man she wanted him to be.
All of this was to say that Tony had learned and lived with a lot of unnecessary fears that came from somewhere, and I inherited the simple job of showing him most—if not all—of his fears were created in his own mind. In other words, not real.
Another twist had shown up during one of our lessons. We were in the middle of a drill, and I slapped the back of his hand. He cradled that hand with the other, brought it up to his mouth like a mother would, and kissed it.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"I'm kissing it to make it feel better."
"Are you serious?"
Lord. How does anyone teach toughness? The fastest way? By throwing that person to the wolves. Knowing his mother was a prosecuting attorney prevented me from doing this. Also, I was taking a shine to the kid. But an idea popped into my head. One that would possibly get me sued. Again, I reminded myself what his mother did for a living.
In our next lesson, I walked through the door and greeted Tony with a smile. He turned around to lead me to our training area. I targeted his back. He suspected nothing. "How are you?" I said. And slapped his back hard. Really hard. So hard that it could be heard a mile away.
"Ouch! What was that for?" he cried.
"What? It's just a friendly pat on the back."
Next lesson. I enter Tony's home, greet him with a smile. He turned around. Slap!
Next lesson. I enter. Smile. He turned around. Then looked back at me.
"How's school?" I asked.
Tony put his guards up.
"What?" I said, giving him the most innocent look I could muster.
"A lot of homework."
"Ah. Are you done with it?"
Tony turned around. "Not yet."
The boy learned to have his guard up, to be more aware. But that didn't stop the slaps. Sometimes they would come during a drill. Sometimes after the lesson. Other times I would slap his shoulder because he would never present his back. In the end, he didn't kiss his hand when he got hurt. At least not in front of me. And hopefully Tony learned that he was a lot tougher than he gave himself credit for.
The ominous door stared at me.
I had been teaching Tony for around a year. The slaps ended. Naturally. But Tony still had irrational fears. So in the beginning of our lesson, I told him that he had to open the door in the basement.
"Will you be here?" he asked.
"I'll be here."
Tony stepped up to the door and hesitated. "You're not going to trick me and stuff me in there? Right?"
"Would I be that mean?" I assured.
He gave me a look to remind me of the slaps he had received.
I found a flashlight from the piles of nick knacks in the basement and stood about a few feet away from the door.
Trembling a bit, Tony reached for the door handle and let a moment pass. He closed his eyes and took a breath, then opened them. He pulled the door open. Cool air entered the basement, bringing an earthy smell. The concrete foundation expanded under the house into the dark. More nick knacks were packed off to the sides. Some lumber. But there was enough room for a person to hide with evil intentions. That was what I read from Tony's eyes.
"Let's go in," I said.
"Yeah. If there's anything in there, then you and I will handle it."
"You're not going to just lock me in there, right?"
I didn't bother asking if he thought I could do such a thing. "I'll be here."
Surprisingly, he climbed in first, trusting that I wouldn't shut the door behind him, forcing him to suffer alone. I climbed in after with the flashlight. There wasn't much height between the foundation and the bottom of the house. So we had to squat. We shined the light around different crevices so Tony could see nobody was lurking, hopefully dispersing his fear like a shadow.
"I'm gonna turn off the light."
"For how long?"
Tony's eyes widened to almost round-eyes. And that was a feat. He had very slanty eyes. "Serious?"
"How long then?"
I smiled and agreed. I turned off the flashlight. And we waited, squatting like old Chinese men in kung-fu shoes, smoking cigarettes.
"You OK?" I asked.
"I think so."
"Nothing to be afraid of."
"But you're here."
"So?" A moment passed. "You could have done this alone if you wanted to."
Tony didn't answer. "Is the minute up?"
"Don't you?" I asked again.
"Want to try?"
Tony thought for a moment. "Next time."
I opened the door and stepped down. Tony followed.
We never tested that fear again. Maybe because I knew he could do it. Or that he had outgrown that kind of train of thought because he could reason it out, that most of his fears were fake.
Five years had gone by. I relished our time together because we became friends, much like how Penn and I had been. As all kids do, they grow up, graduate from high school, then move out-of-state to attend university.
He had been at university for a year or two. He was talking to his roommates who were going through their own growing pains. And he realized something. In one of the rare times we saw each other, he said that he had been thankful for having me help him through his issues. That he was glad he was beyond them. Truth of the matter was that Tony was more than capable of moving beyond his own issues. Sometimes people need a flash light to find their way.
And it's not like he would never have problems again, or that sometimes life shits on people. But it's how we handle it that shows how far we have grown. And it was at this moment that I knew Tony didn't need a person like me anymore. That was my third life lesson. I would have failed as a teacher if he did. But I hope he knows that I'll be here.