The timer rang, indicating the round had begun. I threw a few light jabs at my partner. She stepped in and returned a hard cross to my head. Not quite I’m-trying-to-knock-you-out-hard, but hard enough to make my brain feel a little bruised. We exchanged a few more punches, and again the hard cross landed on my nose, followed by a powerful hook that hit me in the temple.
I stopped. “Are we supposed to be going that hard?” I asked her.
This was my first time really sparring in the new boxing teacher’s class. Two days ago I had taken this class and we had done light sparring, with no headgear, lightly tapping each other with our punches. He hadn’t given us any direction on how hard to hit now that we were wearing full gear. I had assumed it would be harder, but not this hard; this was like a real fight.
“What’s going on over there?” the teacher asked.
“She wants to know how hard we’re supposed to go,” my partner said.
The teacher turned to me, his face serious and angry. “Don’t stop fighting to talk,” he said. “If you have a question, ask me.”
He paused for a moment to let this instruction sink in, then added, “Go hard!”
So, with those expectations clear, I began to throw hard punches back at my partner, and she threw hard punches back at me. By the end of the first round, she looked a little shaken and she informed me that my nose was bleeding.
We each fought five more rounds like that, two with each other and then three with other partners. The entire time we were sparring, our teacher was yelling insulting comments, some of them at us, but blessedly, more of them at the other students.
“You look horrible out there,” I heard him saying to a grim-faced young kickboxer. “You should be doing better. You’ve competed, in kickboxing not boxing, but it’s all the same thing, competition. You just look horrible.” He shook his head, his facial expression conveying a mixture of disappointment and disgust.
After class, the teacher instructed us to huddle around as he made a speech.
“I’m not angry,” he said. “I may seem angry, but I’m not angry. I’m just frustrated. I just want you all to get better so that if you keep sparring or maybe compete, you’ll be used to what it’s like in a fight. I don’t believe in learning at the fight; I’ve always been against that.”
I’m a teacher, and what I’ve always been against is any type of pedagogy that involves insulting students. Teachers who scrawl Not English in the margin next to a grammatical error committed by a recent immigrant or who use the phrase I’m disappointed in their final comments have always horrified me. How are the students supposed to learn if the teacher takes every mistake as a personal affront? Do we really want students’ main goal as they write to be avoiding mistakes?
One of the reasons I love teaching writing is that it is a process, and there is always room for improvement. Even the most disastrous essay on Shakespeare or Michael Moore or An Educational Experience That Had a Positive Impact on My Life contains the seeds of great writing. Much of the greatest writing begins as a shitty first draft, and focusing on the negative is not only depressing, but counterproductive, since it is both the teacher’s and student’s job to find those moments of potential and nurture them; simply avoiding crappy writing is not enough to constitute great writing. A writer who fears grammatical errors, clichés, missing topic sentences, or incorrect analyses will become too paralyzed to write anything at all. So mistakes are encouraged, especially those sorts of mistakes that come from experiment, pushing a bit further, taking risks and trying new strategies.
On the other hand, I realize that we have a certain privilege, as writers, to be able to make mistakes. What if I were teaching my students something that they could not afford to mess up, something like heart surgery or bridge design or how to pilot a commercial jet? My liberal, nurturing, let-them-make-mistakes attitude would hardly work in those cases. Even for my friend who works in a machine shop, a tiny miscalculation can lead to the destruction of a ten-thousand dollar piece of metal or having to start an almost-complete project all over again.
In fields where a mistake could cost people their lives, the training reflects a no-mistakes-permitted philosophy and is often geared towards weeding out those who are prone to error. The training to become a doctor has become so competitive in terms of factual knowledge that I often fear that the doctors of my generation will all have horrible social skills, since they have to compete ruthlessly with their colleagues and forgo most social events just to make it into medical school. And while this does worry me, truthfully, if somebody is taking a scalpel to my brain, heart, or any other important part of my body, their fabulous bedside manner means nothing if they can’t remember the correct place to make the incision.
I know that the tough-love attitude of such areas of study has its own rewards. My friend who just finished her medical residency told me that not only was the arduous schedule worthwhile, but that she actually enjoyed the long, sleepless nights.
“I think there’s some self selection,” she told me. “The people who get into this field enjoy this sort of thing, working thirty-six hour shifts. You kind of get into it. Actually, the older doctors always say we have it easy. They worked like fifty hours in a row during their residencies.”
I often wonder, could people learn to be good doctors without going through this ordeal? Do the long hours contribute significant knowledge that could only be obtained through the efficiency of a sleepless apprenticeship? Or does this apprenticeship simply serve to weed out those who, under the pressure of overwork and exhaustion, might get confused about which finger they were supposed to be amputating? Either way, one can see the value in having to jump through a few fiery hoops on your own before you attempt to do so carrying a passenger on your back.
This brings me back to my boxing training. On the scale of necessary perfectionism, boxing falls somewhere between English class and brain surgery. It’s a lot more dangerous than writing essays, but no matter how much you mess it up, no one but (in the very worst case scenario) yourself is going to die. But the question remains: if I don’t go hard while I practice, will I be able to handle going hard in a competition or street fight?
My fear is that I won’t—yet I don’t want to train that hard, at least not on a weekly basis, which I suppose explains why I make my living as an English teacher and not a boxer or a brain surgeon. Still, I always wonder if I am doing a disservice to my learning when I choose light sparring over the harder sort.
And yet, when I find myself in a situation such as this boxing class, where I am unexpectedly faced with harder sparring than I had expected, or a spazzy, dangerous partner, or a distractingly critical teacher, I actually do fine. I landed about as many hard punches on my partner as she landed on me, possible even more. And once I realized how forceful her punches were going to be, I evaded almost all of them. I did all of this using the same techniques I had been practicing in my light sparring class, against an opponent who was much more accustomed to this higher level of impact than I was.
So perhaps I don’t need to feel guilty about my English-teacher sparring. Maybe it’s preparing me for brain-surgeon boxing after all.