The Story About Kevin
By Christopher Caile
For years I taught karate at the State University
of New York at Buffalo. Of all the students I have
had, perhaps the one that has given me the greatest
joy was the one I least expected. And
he proved to be a great teacher as well. The story
of Kevin goes right to the root of the concept of
karate-do. While most people think students of karate
are tough and well coordinated, it is not always so.
If the practice of karate can develop and aid in personal
and spiritual self-improvement, then shouldn't karate
be able to benefit more people than just those who
are already strong?
I was stretching one evening just before the karate
class I instructed in the University's athletic center
when a young bearded man in a wheel chair wheeled
over to me and said something.
"Kaaan ah stuuuudeee Kaa raah ahhhh te?"
Later I found out that his voice and body coordination
had been distorted by the effects of cerebral palsy
he had since birth. At the time I had to listen several
times to understand that what he was asking was whether
he could study karate with us in class. I had to think
for a few seconds, for I had never worked with a handicapped
student much less one in a wheelchair. When I replied
I said, "sure you can study, but only if you
help yourself and if you fall you will have to get
up yourself." He seemed surprised. He later told
me that he had tried to join many other activities
but had always been turned down. He had been especially
sure no one would teach him karate. But Kevin did
study with us. At the beginning of every class he
pulled himself out of the wheelchair and with his
legs bent inward, arms waving for balance, he began.
His movements were uncoordinated and often he fell,
but he would get up and keep trying. Later he thanked
me for not trying to help him. He explained that by
treating him equally it made him feel he belonged.
Day by day the changes were almost imperceptible,
but over time the change was noticeable. His balance
improved along with his coordination, strength and
even his speech. He
began to come to class early in order to practice
walking up and down the stairs within the athletic
arena. Not only did this help his coordination but
it strengthened his legs. Kevin explained that exercise
was especially important for those with cerebral palsy
because without it, as people aged the body could
quickly deteriorate. At Christmas time his second
year I got a holiday card from Kevin. It was perhaps
the most memorable one I have ever received. In large,
uneven letters, across the inside was the message:
"Thank you for letting me try."
Although Kevin is still handicapped physically, his
spirit is tremendous. He also has a sharp wit and
sense of humor although his speech difficulties often
hide it. Two years ago, after more than eight years
of practice, he traveled to our organization's New
York headquarters to test for shodan (first degree
black belt). I was so proud. During the promotion
he was asked to do a kata before all the other black
belts in attendance, around 100. He did, and his movements
although awkward and still hesitant were pretty good.
Afterwards everyone got to their feet and applauded.
What observers didn't realize is how Kevin measured
his own success. He later asked me, "Do you know
what I tried to do hardest in my kata?" "No,"
I replied. "Just not to fall down," he said.
has taught me never to make quick judgments and never
to underestimate someone. He has also taught me that
each of us is very different and that each has his
or her own strengths, weaknesses and goals. Karate
helped him become stronger, better coordinated and
helped him feel he could fit in and accomplish something
he had set out to do. Now he doesn't always have to
use his wheelchair either. Often when he came to class,
he left the chair at home and walked to the bus that
brought him to campus. Being mostly a solo activity,
Karate thus proved to be an excellent form of physical
therapy. And in Kevin's case it also helped him develop
spirit and self-discipline. Perhaps it is something
that more people with coordination and body control
problems could benefit from.
Lest you think Kevin didn't also learn self-defense,
let me relay an incident that occurred on a downtown
street in Buffalo. Someone had picked Kevin, a slight
man in a wheelchair, as an easy target to rob. But
when he tried to grab Kevin's waist bag, the attacker
got the surprise of his life. The victim grabbed back.
While pulling the robber forward and down with one
hand, Kevin's other hand in a fist met the attacker
in the face. By the time several people from a nearby
store reached the pair, the attacker was on his back
on the sidewalk with Kevin sitting over him, threatening
to hit again.
Last year Kevin demonstrated a bo (six foot wooden
stick) kata at a tournament in Ithaca, New York. Afterwards
I talked to the audience about Kevin. "If you
are a student of karate perhaps you know the motto,
'If knocked down seven times, get up eight.' It's
a motto about perseverance. But most of you don't
realize that just to be able to do the simple things
like walking and standing we all take for granted,
Kevin literally has fallen down thousands of time
and gotten up thousands of times -- something few
of us here would ever be willing to try. He is an
example of spirit, someone we can all learn from.
So the next time you feel frustrated by something,
feel the world is against you, think of Kevin and
his spirit. It will make your challenge seem a lot
easier." Right after me another instructor also
got up to talk about Kevin and how his efforts inspired
him. "When I saw Kevin perform his kata, I started
to cry," the instructor began. But before he
could continue Kevin lightened the moment. In a loud
voice Kevin asked, "Was it that bad?"
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