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Back on the Mat: Teaching and Learning with My Brother

As most older siblings can attest, there is always a part of you that considers yourself to be your sibling’s teacher. I’ve come to accept this as a bit of reflex; no matter how old my little brother gets, no matter how much he’s grown (six inches taller than me, for those wondering), no matter what skills he’s developed, there will always be a part of me that wants to instruct and guide him. I want to be someone he can turn to when he needs help, someone who has answers to his questions. I want to be someone who can teach him well.

This was my attitude long before the pandemic. Flynn and I were in the gym constantly, often doing vastly different things at different paces, and yet this never curbed my enthusiasm for parsing instructions. I wanted to give him tips on setting up his triangles, even though he trained for multiple hours a week, and I hadn’t trained consistently in years. I wanted to give him tips on how to lead orientations, even though he taught adults, and I worked with kids. I wanted to share knowledge with him and teach him all I could, even though he was learning more from those around him than I could ever pass on.

Then, the news broke. Everything would be different for who knew how long. I remember the panic and confusion that came from not knowing what the future would look like. How could I have anything to teach my brother in a time and place where no one knew what tomorrow would be? How would any of us have answers for one another? How would Flynn as a learner continue to grow? How would we feel getting back on the mats?

We started making sense of the craziness by learning on our own. Flynn learned how to connect with coaches for a walk in the park. I learned how to connect to friends over Zoom. He learned to check in with professors he was missing. I learned to text students to make sure they were safe and healthy.

And suddenly, we started learning new things together. It had been probably five years since Flynn and I had trained together, and there we were, taking Zoom lessons on the carpet in our living room. There we were, using the couch as the walls of our octagon. There we were, walking into the gym to get our temperature taken. There we were, trying to find no-gi clothes that worked with our masks. There we were, getting stripes on our blue belts just days apart.

As this continued, I started to notice that Flynn and I were changing. I was not offering answers to questions he had never asked, and I was not in any position to try and guide him through much of anything. Flynn was the one taking charge. He was patiently putting up with my stilted, awkward movements, a byproduct of those inconsistent years on the mat. He was helping me understand where the holes in my jiu jitsu were. He was laughing along with me when I fumbled and failed and congratulating me when something went right. He was a brilliant opponent, a perfect uke, and an outstanding friend.

Getting back on the mats has meant the world to Flynn and me both. We are better learners with Easton in our lives and better people when we are willing to learn. Quarantine has hopefully taught all of us that we still have plenty to learn about each other, about how we are willing to care for one another, and about how we are willing to move forward when the world changes around us.

Most importantly, though, getting back on the mats has taught me that no matter how much younger my brother is, no matter how little I feel he may be, and no matter how much he may still be learning, he has truly grown into an incredible teacher.

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