Whatever may be their use in civilized societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action.
― Virginia Woolf,
Life is full of teachers who come in all shapes and sizes. Some are older, some are younger. Some are worldly while others don’t own a passport. Some mentors spoil their students with kindness and unwavering support. Others use demonic and subversive approaches.
We don’t get to choose our lessons, you know, or the boxes our teachers arrive in.
He’s a kid, I think when I spot Coach. A Colgate smile flashes across his baby-face as he calls me over to the ring. His voice moves between octaves as he asks about my level of fitness. I answer in a way I hope doesn’t sound sarcastic as I try to avoid blurting, “Baby, what the hell do you think you are going to teach me?”
Fast-forward 11 months and I’ve eaten those unspoken words dozens of times over. Coach (real name: Michael Hughes) has taught me so much I could fill a small textbook with the knowledge he’s imparted. There’s technical stuff, sure, like how to move fluidly from offense to defense or measure distance with a jab. But the sweeter, more surprising, takeaways are those that apply to life outside the ring.
Insights we receive from those who act like mirrors so we can get a better look at our reflections.
When I think about my most memorable teachers, I see how they have taken me past the margins, further than I ever thought possible. Collectively, their guidance has helped me become faster, stronger, bendier, smarter, and greater-than. From them, I have learned how to talk less, listen more, be humble, and take multiple risks.
But the best of the best out there have shared the subtler, bittersweet lessons. Like how winning might be nice but it isn’t everything. There’s an art to getting up after being knocked down, and losing with a modicum of grace.
The wise know the power of living with an abundance of fearlessness.
This is why the company we keep, and who we learn from, matters. Putting one’s trust, mind, and body in another’s hands is a volatile and vulnerable arrangement. Coach gets access to me when I am at my best and worst. He (more than others) is acquainted with the majority of my moods and physical limitations.
And on the days when my shadow is visible he, like the best, steps up to do the heavy lifting.
All of this isn’t to say that Coach doesn’t have faults because you can bet your last dollar he does. He’s only human, after all. But he still manages to inspire in spite of his transgressions. For an hour he will invest everything he’s got, exhausting his reserves to reflect back your potential. He forgets about himself so he can transfer his energy and knowledge.
“I see you,” Coach says softly, as I deliver a wind-sucking uppercut to the bullseye of the mitt he holds against his ribcage.
And as I weave to the left I catch sight of myself—a glorious mess—in the mirror. Coach sees me clearly because he’s a particle of glass that reflects light, including his own.
I squint before pivoting. The reflection is blinding.