Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Mr. Miyagi's Lesson

My parents learned early on that there were certain movies that they couldn’t let babysitters show us before bedtime.  We would get too wound up and rambunctious.  One of those movies was the Karate Kid.

That may have been the movie that started the selectiveness.

It’s was such a great movie.  There was an eccentric old man who could catch flies with chopsticks who also trimmed funny little bonsai trees.  There was fighting, and not just the regular kind, it was karate—like dancing and fighting combined.  And of course there was the triumph of the bullied underdog who came back to show the world who was in charge.

Yes, by the end of that movie we were standing on the arms of the couch to practice our balance and trying to jump kick each other in the face.  But, nothing we did looked elegant, it was just the same old brawling we always did.  Which we did a lot of after that movie.

It didn’t seem fair that we couldn’t master the skill that Daniel had.  The montage that showed his learning and training was so short.  It looked effortless.  But really there was more to it than that.

If you remember, the sage Mr. Miyagi who becomes Daniel’s sensei puts Daniel up to many seemingly random chores.  Daniel wanted to learn to fight and instead he became a laborer, much to his chagrin.

Daniel spends his time waxing cars, painting fences, and scrubbing wooden decks.  He can’t see the relationship between what he is doing and what he wanted to be doing.  A point he makes to Mr. Miyagi, in a somewhat whiney tone.  I don’t blame him.  I would complain too.  His wise sensei disregards the complaining and sternly tells him to do as he is told.

Daniel sticks with it in spite of his misgivings.  I think he persevered because he really did trust that his teacher knew what he was doing.  And so the chores continued.

But patience was never one of Daniel’s strong points.  When he had had enough he told Miyagi that he was quitting because he wasn’t making any progress and hadn’t learned a single thing about karate.

Then Daniel sees Mr. Miyagi’s wisdom—the wisdom that we believed he had, despite the lack of real evidence.  Ah, yes, all the chores were to build the muscles needed to master karate.  Mr. Miyagi then showed how each motion of a chore was also a foundation in fighting.

Daniel’s trust in his mentor was not ill founded.  It paid off in the end.


But what if Daniel had been wrong?  What if Mr. Miyagi turned out to be some kook that didn’t know what he was doing?  What if he was doing chores for no other reason than to do the chores? That would be a supreme rip off and make for a terrible movie.  The chores and the trust only paid off because they served some greater purpose.

So, why am I reminiscing on a movie from the 80’s that was much better when I saw it in the 80’s than it is now?  Because I am sitting in a school, tutoring kids in math and science.

“When am I ever going to use this in my life?” and “Why is this even important?” are questions I asked as a kid in school.  And these students ask me the same questions.  What scares me is that I can’t answer them.  I don’t feel like a wise mentor who is waiting to show them the grander significance of the menial tasks they are performing.  I don’t have anything to show them. There is no grand picture.

I wish that what was going on here mattered.  And I don’t mean the actual problems.  If the problems were a means to an end I could support that.  Critical thinking and problem solving are so valuable in every aspect of life.  But that isn’t being taught or learned either.

At the end of the day I feel that the time these boys spend here is wasted.  They are performing chores but not the kind that are building them up.  They are not learning the foundation of karate.  They’re just doing regular old chores for the sake of doing chores.  But unlike the chores Daniel does, these accomplish little more that to keep them busy.  I fear that when it is all over they will not have what they could have had.  On top of that they will hate Mr. Miyagi, an old kook that didn’t know what he was doing after all.

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