Last Christmas my brother, whom I love dearly, gave me a membership to a karate club. Yes, I was as surprised as you might be to hear this. I’m sure the karate instructor was equally surprised when he read the application my brother sent in. It probably read something like this: “My sister is getting older and I want to make sure she can protect herself if the occasion arises to do so. Enclosed is her membership fee. Please teach her self-defense maneuvers.”
I was moved that my brother wanted to protect me, especially since he STILL occasionally brings up how I used to punch him when we were little. Honestly, I don’t ever remember punching anyone, ever. So a few weeks ago I trotted off to my first karate self-defense class. I sat in the parking lot for about 15 minutes before going in, feeling too old to do this; too slow, to creaky, too unwilling. Then I got out of the car and went into the karate gym. The rest of the class were people in their teens and twenties. They all had their little karate outfits on, black pants and shirts and so forth. Quite unstylish if you ask me. Oh Yes, and of utmost importance were the belts. They had different colored belts on, all of which meant something significant to all but me who didn’t have a clue.
I might just be projecting this on to the instructor, but he seemed perplexed to see me. I thought he must be thinking the same thing I was – “oh no!” Anyway, he politely showed me around before the class and then said the worst thing imaginable. He said, “Now, you don’t have to keep up with the class. Just do what you can.”
“humph!” I thought.
After class on my way home, I remembered all the times the peers I’ve had the pleasure to work with would say, “I don’t want any special accommodations. Hold me to the same standards you hold the other employees.” After “the excuse” the karate instructor gave me, I really understood what they were saying and why they were saying it. I didn’t appreciate the instructor assuming that I couldn’t learn the moves. I didn’t want permission to be a slacker. If I was going to put myself through the agony of showing up for a class where everyone one else was young enough to be my grandchild, where we learned to fend off attackers; where we learned to “pop kick”, role on the floor, escape a bear hug – If I was going to do all of that, I certainly didn’t want to be assigned to the role of someone who probably couldn’t make the grade.
The second class felt much like I know it feels when a peer goes to work for the first time in a clinical setting. Everyone else seems to know each other. They have their short-cut language filled with “trade” words that meant nothing to me. They were all dressed alike (except for me who wasn’t going to buy one of those black baggy outfits). They all seemed to know what to do and went about doing it. They knew I was there but didn’t quite know what to do with me. I was different. The instructor counted us and said, “Oh good, ten of you, an even number so we can pair up.” Actually there was elven of us, counting me, whom he did not count. Once everyone got in pairs, I shrugged and looked at the instructor and he assigned one of the staff to work with me. I wanted to go home so bad.
Fast forward a couple classes, and yes, I am still going back. The instructor does not know my name yet, but he will. I’m getting pretty good at some of the moves. I pay close attention to the demonstrations, which is more than I can say for my teenage counterparts. I have no delusions about being the star student or teacher’s favorite, but I’m going to keep going back until my membership runs out.
If any of this sounds familiar to you – if it sounds like your work situation, know that you are not alone. This is part of what it takes to evolve a new profession like peer support. My resent karate experience reminds me just how hard this can be. So let’s just all keep going back, day after day, class after class, until we are recognized as a serious contributor and force to be reckoned with. And then we will politely bow to the others, like we do in the karate class, an honor the spirit that lives and breathes within each one of us.