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27 Mar

Having done this “Senior Naval Science Instructor” gig for almost five years now, I can definitely say a few things with certainty.

First, I have one of the coolest jobs in the world, and I am blessed AND lucky to do it.



Now, before you start lining up to beat with measuring sticks, note that I did not say, “Not everyone needs more education after high school.”  That would be ludicrous. We should NEVER stop learning.  And by that, I don’t even mean we should always be learning common sense or useless trivia; I mean we should always be learning something from some sort of established process that continues to make us (and more importantly, those around us) better.  That could take a lot of different forms.  Of course college is the one most of us are most familiar with, but there’s also trade school, apprenticeship, and job training provided by companies and corporations.

And before you “pooh-pooh” the idea of trade schools, look up what an auto mechanic could make.  Or an HVAC mechanic (heating-ventilation-air-conditioning for those that don’t speak the lingo).  Or an aircraft structural mechanic.  These jobs require intelligent, trained, hardworking individuals, but they don’t require a college degree.

Why am I popping this flare?  Might seem sort of strange, coming from someone who teaches high school, this attitude that not everyone should head off to college right after graduation, but here is what I hear and see fairly often from parents (and it drives me nuts):

  1. “MY KID IS GOING TO COLLEGE.”  For whatever reason, I have run into parents who really don’t give their child a choice about college.  Either they didn’t have a chance to go and are trying to make up for something, or they did and want their child to suffer equally.  It doesn’t really matter; I ask them the same question.  “What does your kid want?”  If the student doesn’t want to be in college, at best they are going to be miserable.  At worst they are not going to get anything from the experience.  Either way, money has changed hands.  Why?
  2. “COLLEGE GIVES YOU A BETTER CHANCE TO GET A JOB.”  True, slightly.  But if you look at the traits of successful people, I think you will find that “hard work,” “determination,” and “character,” all count as much as any educational background, and those things are taught at home before they are taught anywhere else.
  3. “I WANT MY KID TO HAVE COLLEGE BEFORE HE/SHE JOINS THE MILITARY.”  I have watched several young people in need of discipline and structure, who possessed both the desire and the raw material to succeed in the military, not join but instead go to community college to please their parents.  In every case, the student struggled in college (though some did complete it) and did not enlist.  True, the military is not for everyone, and I do my best to steer away those for whom I think it would not be a good choice.  But so many misinformed parents think that if their child joins the military, they will never go to college, when in reality most do either during their enlistment or after, using their GI benefits.  Everyone seems to want their child to become independent, to develop skills, and to make life long friends that matter.  Military does that in spades; if your child is considering it, at least make it as viable an option as college.

I have worked with a  lot of high schoolers.  Most of them are great.  Within virtually all of them, there is something from which society can benefit (ok, for a few, only if they were organ donors).  But they all don’t need college.  We need mechanics, and office staff, and plumbers, and electricians, and tailors, and cobblers (yeah, we still need them, and it is a DYING trade) and a host of other skills and trades.

Here is what I tell my cadets.

“I don’t care what you do when you leave high school, but I want you to have a plan.   I want you to have three options; a plan A, B, and C.  They don’t have to include college.  They do have to include a way for you to support yourself without relying on your parents’ couch, and they need to be realistic (and for some of them, I stress “legal”).  If you want to go college, we will help you pick your high school courses and improve your chances of getting in.  If you want to join the military, we will help get you ready.  If you want to go to the workforce, we will help you with interviews and job options.  You need to have a plan; you are doing the work, not mom or dad.”

College is the right move for some, even many, but not all.  If you know a young person in high school, before you tell them what you think they should do, find out from them what they LIKE to do.

If you read this far, you probably could use a smile.  SO…

I offer some brand new material about how I try and hurt myself now that I am retired…


Kicks from Karate

In life, there are things that seem like a good idea at the time, but aren’t (like dating the slightly imbalanced but really cute neighbor upstairs). There are also things that seem like a good idea, and turn out to be just that, although not always in the way you expected.

After successfully surviving 20+ years in the Navy, I had earned the right to live safely and not expose myself to any more danger or physical harm. However, not being smart enough to do that, I instead decided at the tender young age of 42 to pursue something I had dabbled in but never truly embraced…martial arts.

I had never done karate or any sort of martial arts as a kid. Growing up, if I needed to be punched or kicked, I had two siblings and a whole neighborhood of delinquents anxious to oblige (and for an extra charge, I could get bitten too). When I went to college at the Naval Academy, we were forced to learn (among other things) boxing, wrestling, judo, and “self-defense,” which we all called “hand-to-gland” because most of the moves involved smashing your opponent in a soft tissue area that if done correctly would kill them. I never killed anyone, so apparently I didn’t do it right. I survived to graduate, so my classmates didn’t do it right, either. All of these classes taught me some very important lessons:

1. I do not like getting punched (or kicked, or flipped, or thrown, or choked).
2. I can SURVIVE getting punched (or kicked, or flipped, or thrown. Choking maybe not.)
3. My best interests would be served NOT getting punched (or kicked, or flipped or…you get the idea).

In fact, the single greatest moment in all of my time in the above classes can be summed up in the words of my boxing instructor. My final boxing test consisted of a fight of two two-minute rounds, which were collectively the longest four minutes of my life until I had to sit in a Navy Human Resources seminar several years later. After the test, the coach, noting my somewhat bloodied-but-still-standing appearance at the sound of the final bell, looked at me and said, “Ballister, that was pretty impressive. I can’t remember watching someone get their ass kicked so bad in the first round and come back to almost win the fight.” I took it as high praise, and then I took off my gloves for what I hoped (and at the time was quite sure) was my last time.

A few years later, I had the opportunity to work one-on-one with my friend Allan, who was skilled in kickboxing. Our deal was this: If I promised to be a good workout partner and commit to working out at least twice a week with him, he promised to teach me kickboxing skills and not kill me in the process. We did lots of drills together, broke quite a sweat, and I learned how rewarding and cathartic studying martial arts can be. But then I transferred, and my loving wife became pregnant, and it seemed silly to leave the house to go fight when my pregnant, alcohol-and-caffeine deprived wife was willing to fight right there in the comforts of our own home.

Time quickly flew by, and my daughter quickly grew. And I mean GREW. When she was six, on her first day of first grade, she was bigger than any third grader. I feared she would be a target, because I know little kids can be cruel, so I wanted her to have some self-defense skills and be confident enough to use them. But I also didn’t think she would go to class by herself, so I enrolled both of us in karate school.

She liked it. But I LOVED it.

Don’t get me wrong; it was hard. And it was occasionally painful. And sometimes I worked so hard I felt like throwing up. But overall it was one of the most rewarding things I had ever tried to do and it paid off with a ton of healthy side effects to boot.
During class, I didn’t have time to consider my health, because I was too busy trying to stay alive. Mrs. Sensai (pronounced SEN-say) was a very sweet, thin redhead who on initial inspection looked as threatening as an unlaced shoe. However, on only slightly further inspection did the truth come out; she was absolutely lethal, and smiled and was polite and encouraging the entire time she was rearranging your bone structure. Class usually consisted of Mrs. Sensai or her son, Junior Sensai, teaching other members of the class how to hurt me. Occasionally, they were not happy with the speed of progress, and took matters into their own hands to hurt me. On truly rare occasions, Mrs. Sensai’s husband, Mr. Sensai, would teach the class. In those classes, someone usually died.

Still, I loved every minute of it, and was working my way up the ranks when my wife decided that she was done living on the east coast and wanted to return to her native California. She said I was invited to join her, but it wasn’t a requirement. After weighing my chances of ever finding another woman to tolerate me, I packed my bags and we moved west. Among other changes, I had to find a new dojo in which to train.

It took a while, but I eventually settled on another karate school in a system that was similar, but not exactly the same, as what I had studied before. It was similar in that the instructors were kind, friendly, polite, and could inflict pain simply by blinking in my general direction. A lot of the rest of it was different. I will say that it required the same amount of dedication, preparation, and landing on the floor as I was used to, so all in all it wasn’t too big of a switch, and I was once again channeling my inner warrior.

Yes, studying martial arts is frustrating at times. Making my body do what my mind tells it to do was easy when I was younger. Now, with a few more injuries and a few less reflexes, there are times when I quite obviously have the opportunity to hit someone in a sparring match, or take them down during class, etc. etc. Only by the time my eyes see it, tell my brain, and my brain gets the telegram off to the correct limbs, the moment has usually passed. Sometimes, my potential target is no longer in the same spot. Twice, on my particularly slow days, they were no longer in the same room.

But in the end, it’s about the growth, and I have grown. This is one of those things where it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. I will continue this journey, learning from and enjoying all the wonderful people along the way. Even though they at times are trying to hurt me.

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