My T’ai Chi instructor teaches beginner and intermediate classes. I have taken the beginner class six times, maybe more.
The teacher is kind to us beginners even when we are experienced. There is a group of regulars who come back session after session and stand next to new people who’ve never t’aid a chi. For a week or two, we know more than they do and it makes us feel accomplished. The feeling fades fast though as the teacher moves to the more advanced forms. Then, we all flail.
Last week as our beginner class was ending, I saw one of the beginner regulars sitting with a small group of intermediate people waiting for the intermediate class to begin. Through the glass, he watched us do the final series or run-through or whatever it’s called. I gave him a why are you sitting there look and he grinned a mustachioed man’s grin, a grin that crinkled his eyes into little half moons.
I was astonished.
He always stood in the front row and he always wore blue jeans. Sometimes he wore suspenders and a plaid shirt, a plaid button shirt. That was his T’ai Chi wear. He was stiff and his moves were slight suggestions. Other students T’ai Chi’d circles around him but he never seemed to care. He was always grinning like being in class was the most fun he’d ever had. It always made me merry to see him.
So when I saw he’d decided to move up to intermediate, I thought hey! why not me? I’m better than Mustachioed Man.
So today, I went to the intermediate class. Right away, I noticed that MM had gotten little T’ai Chi shoes, like ballet shoes for men, a clear sign that he was upping his game. He still wore jeans but no suspenders. The shoes changed his whole look though, made him look contemplative, like a serious student. I wished I had shoes like his. Make me more authentic-looking, like I belonged in intermediate.
The class was much smaller than the beginner class; there were maybe seven of us. The instructor started with the usual set of forms, the ones I knew from beginner’s, and then she embarked on a 15-minute long series of moves I had never seen, one after the other, each of them more dramatic than the last. It was the Nutcracker of T’ai Chi.
Then she settled on one new move to teach us. We repeated it a dozen times. “One more time,” she says after every effort. “One more time.” She is Chinese, slight with a wide open face and a thin ponytail. She wears an athletic shirt tucked into long pants. She doesn’t speak much English except to tell us where to put our parts. Left foot to the right. Right hand over the left.
It is hard and I miss my beginner class. I remember her kindness and low expectations with the beginners, her lack of correction, her never singling us out. Today, she came up to me and moved my right arm higher. She touched me for the first time in two years and I felt like I’d graduated in some way. I had become worth correcting. I liked that.
“Now practice on your own. I will watch.”
The others in the class started to move about, each doing their own version of “wax on, wax off.” I stood immobile. I’d never moved without watching the teacher. I just had to mimic her, I never had to remember on my own. But one can’t stand frozen in a group of T’ai Chi-ing people; it is being a tree in a river.
So I began at the last place I could remember to put my hands and feet. I moved here and there in my clumsy way and out of the corner of my eye I saw Mustachioed Man in his own unembarrassed oblivion, grinning, so I started to grin, too. I can move these arms in some kind of way and that’s what I’ll do and be glad doing it.
The class ended. I was nearly to my car on the street when I felt a tap on my shoulder. My teacher. “You come. It’s good. Kenny, he new, too. It’s hard but practice. You come back next time.” She nodded and smiled. She tucked her shirt into her long pants and walked back inside.
“You are so kind,” I said after her. You are so kind.