Thursday, January 9, 2014


First! may very well be the most annoying internet meme of all time, but let's be perfectly honest: we all want to be first at SOMETHING.  Unfortunately for us as a society, so many of us underachieve and fail to reach our potential so often that being the first to post a comment on the web has actually become a goal and an accomplishment to some people. By the way, to those of you thinking that typing "First" into the comments section of this blog post would be funny or inventive: no, it's just sad. For those of you who are blessed enough to have no idea what I'm talking about, you can learn more by clicking here.  Warning: there may be some strong language in linked videos.  Overall, though, I think the Venn Diagram below illustrates it best:

Okay, now that I got that out of my system, I actually do want do discuss how this relates to martial arts. The simple truth is that most of our efforts and goals to be first at something in the martial arts world are both fleeting and futile. Did you come in first at a tournament?  Are you the World Champion?  These are great accomplishments for you, yes, and I don't want to try to take that from anyone, but in 20 years, will anyone really care?  Will you?  Did you make to black belt faster than anyone in the history of your school?  Can you jump the highest, kick the hardest, or yell the loudest?  Someone will always be better, and physical skills will always diminish in some way over time.  As martial artists, it is important for us to be proud of our accomplishments and inspect our achievements, but it is also important for us to set ego aside and realize that First!  does not always equate to best. Striving to be our best should always take priority over striving to be first.  
There is, however, always an exception to the general rule, and I do believe that there is a special case in which being first in the martial arts world truly does matter.  It is a situation over which we appear to have little control, but is one that nonetheless can create an exceptional martial arts experience.  I speak of the experience created when one becomes an instructor's first student.  There is no doubt in my mind that being a first student allows for a journey in the martial arts unlike any other, and I do not say this simply because I am one (more on that later) but instead because I have had a first student of my own.  Truthfully I have had more than one first student, but I'll explain how that is possible later.
In my own martial arts career, I have been often asked who my first student was, or who was the first student of another instructor or master.  I think that people do not fully understand why they ask this question, and I believe that many instructors do not comprehend why certain names pop into their heads when the question is asked.  I believe that the question is asked often to determine whether this fact is actually important, and that it is answered readily because the answer is, unequivocally, important to the instructor.  
Before I move on further in this direction, though, I think it is important for my readers to understand what I think a first student is.  A first student is not merely the first person who walks through the door to take a class, you see, although I am surprised how often that scenario proves to be true.  A student isn't someone who merely shows up.  A student is someone who studies.  If we look at the definition and origin of the word, we find the following:

If we look merely at the definitions, we find that a student is "a person who is studying", but what does that really mean? By looking further at the origin of the word, we find that a student actually is a person who "applies oneself to" something with "painstaking application". If we look at traditional Chinese characters, from which most Asian languages developed, we see a similar concept. The Chinese word for "student" is xuésheng, which is depicted as follows:


The first character, xué, meaning study, can be broken up into its components in order to better understand its meaning. The 'x' shapes denote mathematics, or knowledge. The strokes surrounding and under the 'x' shapes depict hands grasping or acquiring knowledge that is taught or passed on. Finally, the strokes below depict a child or person. The second character, sheng, is often translated as life, but also depicts growth, development, bringing forth, and other similar ideas. Thus, we can see that a "student" in Asian culture is someone who has dedicated his or her life to grasping or acquiring knowledge, or one who creates growth through the acquiring and development of knowledge.
Why is all of that important? Simply put, it illustrates the point that one can not truly be an instructor's first student unless one is fully committed to the idea of being a student. An instructor's first student is the first one who "gets it."  A first student is the first one who commits to learning the martial arts with his or her whole being.  First students are the first to throw themselves into their training with "painstaking application". The first student is the student who is first to realize and accept that martial arts have truly impacted his or her life for the better. Finally, first students are those who cannot stay away from martial arts, even if they try. First students may not be the first student to set foot on the training floor, but I have seen that they often are. The first person to enroll in a given martial arts school often develops a strong instructor-student bond, and often receives in-depth training at a personal level that is not as often possible as classes grow and increase in size. As those classes do grow, though, it is the first student who shows the way for those who follow.  The first student lets others know what behaviors are expected, acceptable, and unacceptable.  The first student picks up on the instructors nonverbal communication, and often sees that things are done before the instructor needs to ask.  The first student helps to create the school's identity, and is the first to truly become a part of and contribute to the greater whole that is the dojang.   
  I have said already that I personally am a first student. As I cannot say with any certainty that my instructor would agree, I should more accurately say that I believe myself to be my instructor's first student, or that I consider myself to be my instructor's first student. I am not the first person to whom my instructor ever taught martial arts.  I am not even my instructor's first student to reach black belt or master rank, depending on how you look at it. I am, however, the first person to register for classes at my instructor's studio, on the first day he offered classes as a studio owner in the WTSDA, and I am still here, running a studio of my own, so I hope that in some way I "get it" and that this qualifies my belief. 
It could actually be argued that I am a first student of a first student.  My instructor's instructor was Master Michael White, who in the history of his own studio wrote: "Classes were taught throughout the year, in all weather conditions. At this point, the studio had some off/on students. The lone survivor throughout the long succession of students was a student named Charles Vaughn. Charles became Appalachia’s first Black Belt and later on, a Master Instructor himself." As "lone survivor" it could be argued that Master Vaughn was Master White's first student, though again, I do not presume to put words in Master White's mouth.  I merely hope to demonstrate that it could be argued that I am a first student of a first student, as well as illustrate that the concept of the "first student" may in fact mean different things to different people.  If we have learned anything from the Star Wars saga, it is that "many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view."  
  So, while I do not mean to create any controversy by writing this, it can also be argued, from a certain point of view, that Master Michael White was a "first student" of Grandmaster Shin after he came to the United States.  Though I am not saying Master White was Grandmaster Shin's first student ever, from a certain point of view it nonetheless could make me a first student of a first student of a first student.  I say this not to be boastful or to brag of my strong lineage, but instead because it helps me understand the strong responsibility I have to pass on what I have learned. I am proud to say, then, that my own first student is now running a dojang of his own, and again, from a certain point of view, is a first student of a first student of a first student of a first student.  I can only hope that he has found a first student of his own.
  I was, at first, very hesitant to write on this topic because I was afraid that the audience to whom it would be relatable was confined to only instructors and first students.  I have come to realize though, that it is possible to have more than one first student.  How is this possible?  While I will only ever have one first "first student", my wife and I now teach multiple classes in multiple locations.  I therefore have a first student at my new location.  There is the first youth student, and the first little dragon to really become a student in the sense defined above. There is the first student to reach black belt and hopefully one day the first to reach master.  There is the first tournament champion and the first youth student to become an instructor.  There is the first student to arrive for class each day, and the first student to realize that sometimes the best lessons are learned by being the last one to leave. Let me clarify:  I absolutely do not care who is the first person from my dojang to do any of the preceding things.  I absolutely do care who is the first student to do so. In some way, we can all find a way to be first students, and we should all strive to do so. In achieving this, I believe it is okay to proclaim that you were "First!"

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.