Legacy: Life Skills
By Nick Evangelista
I’m not in fencing for the money. If I wanted to get rich I’d have become a plumber. Fencing, then, has a deeper meaning to me. I should say that I am talking about traditional rather than anythingforatouch fencing. Fencing, as an intricate skill to be mastered, has fascinated me for over forty years. This goes beyond the one-on-one competitive thing, encompassing all the personal skills that must be developed and honed to adequately function in a setting that does its best to represent a “what if these were sharp?” fencing approach. (Anyone who knows me understands I am not including manipulating an electric scoring box or intimidating a director through extraordinary histrionics as part of my use of the term “fencing.”)
We can start with becoming adept at the physical side of fencing. This is our first challenge. This means replacing everyday people reactions with distinct fencer responses. Fencing is a foreign system of behavior to our nervous system, and must be mastered and internalized. Within the realm of the physical we must also develop endurance and pacing. But countless fencers never get beyond simple, knee-jerk reflexes, their game revolving abound simply being stronger, faster, and more aggressive than their opponents. If the fencing student is being trained properly, he will eventually integrate basic strategies and tactics into his process. This is a step up in fencing’s evolutionary development, but it is still a fairly mechanical pursuit until the brain is fully engaged.
To be a superior fencer, one’s development must go beyond these obvious martial attributes. A well-rounded fencer should have an understanding of human psychology, and this must pertain to his own mental workings as well as others. This is where fencing takes on new meanings, as each individual encountered becomes a distinct entity to be overcome. Now, strategy becomes a more creative and flexible endeavor. As the fencer gains more control over himself -- his thoughts and his actions – he gains more control over his opponent. Judgment, uncolored by emotional imbalance, is enhanced. Actions are geared to what is truly happening with an opponent, instead of being haphazard and sometimes unstable expressions. In the end, fencing, like all meaningful activities in life, becomes an on purpose proposition. This is where fencing gains the depth that is hinted at in the writings of the great masters. Moreover, it should be obvious that in gaining these inner skills, the fencer transforms himself beyond the fencing strip. Balance, judgment, discernment, and self-control become part of one’s approach to everyday life. Conclusion: fencing, in its traditional form, with its demands for inner human qualities, gives us a template for what might be best described as life skills.
As athletic as sport fencing is, when I see photos and videos of the quick-draw matches, the off-balance, toe-to-toe poking and whacking, and the childish outbursts of anger in defeat and the boorish displays of “superiority” in victory, it is plain that the fencing touted by the USFA and the FIE is just a game, as shallow in intent and outcome as the latest popular video game. But what can be expected in a pursuit where outcome is dictated by whim of rule and intimidation of officials, as it is clearly demonstrated on fencing strips around the world every day? The powers-that-be can romanticize what transpires, ignoring, for instance, the reality of the multitude of interpretations of priority. They can laud the efforts of their “champions.” But they only fool themselves. The gyrations performed are only a shallow parody of fencing, and the new race of fenceletes are typical modern athletic stock: egocentric, selfish, and childish.
I have encountered many of this type over the last thirty or so years. Fencing begins and ends with them. They have little understanding of the inner-workings of fencing as it has existed for centuries, nor, apparently, do they care to. There is no logic or variety in their game, which is a purely physical encounter. In many cases, such as in saber, fencing has devolved into a kind of “quick draw,” followed by a reflexive turn to the scoring box to find who will be rewarded with the flashing light and who will not. A winner may perform some sort of exaggerated victory performance; the loser might let fly with an angry toss of weapon or mask. This kind of fencing has no purpose beyond the “reward.” There is no learning, no growth. It is basically a vehicle for the ego to express itself. Personally, I can live without this kind of fencing and this kind of human being. I am embarrassed to think that I might be associated with these fencers in any way. One might ask what kind of life skills are being taught in an irrational, ego-oriented fencing? Sadly, they often mirror what is ugly and repugnant in present day society.
I am not saying that the traditional game of fencing has not bred its share of ego maniacs and jerks over the centuries, but there was a time when the fencing establishment chose not to make these individuals their heroes. I grew up in a fencing world that still held within its precepts the idea that fencing offered more than a place to vent one’s poor behavior. Within the confines of tradition, mastery, and human interaction, a kind of world view was forged, where, as I noted earlier, the fencer had an opportunity to grow as a human being as well. Believe it or not, fencing was seen to benefit the person, as opposed to the other way around.
Fencers Behaving Badly
Back in the 1970s, I was at a tournament where one fencer, having lost a decisive bout, threw his mask across a gym in a fit of anger and hit a bystander. His coach immediately hauled him in front of those present, made him apologize to everyone, and then publicly disowned him as a student. I believe the fencer was banned from the Amateur Fencers League of America (as the USFA was once called) for a year.
These days, bad behavior is so common, in many cases it merely warrants warnings. I have known young fencers, reared in this new atmosphere, who seemed to believe that fencing did not exist before they decided to honor it with their presence. The fact that few fencers salute or shake hands after bouts is sad because, as unimportant as such actions might seem to many, they actually take the fencer outside himself, requiring him to acknowledge the value of others. To ignore tradition reveals a lack of respect for fencing and other fencers.
It is regrettable that modern fencing is so bereft of true meaning that the pursuit of it no longer imparts personal enlightenment. This happens when “champions” are employed to define meaning of sport. When messengers become the message, the real message is always lost. As far back as the 1700s, the likes of Domenico Angelo saw the merits of following fencing’s path. He understood that discipline and mastery led to personal growth. It was called nobility of spirit, which is probably old-fashioned and useless by modern standards. Today, being a champion leads to commercial endorsements and financial gain. I am not against making money, but as Ebenezer Scrooge found out one Christmas, life is made up of more than dollars.
I should point out right here – before someone else says otherwise -- that I am not a moralist. Nor do I hold myself up as a paragon of virtue. Also, I do not consider myself the center of the universe. I can be cranky, and sometimes selfish. I do not always make the best choices in my life. But I know pretty quickly when I screw up, and I do my best to learn from my mistakes. Fencing has done a lot to improve my take on life. Life is not about being perfect, but shooting for the best we can be. That way, we can at least transcend the present. I would hate to think I had learned nothing in sixty-five years of life.
A Life Question
Once, my wife asked me when I knew I was a good fencer. This was probably the most difficult question I had ever been asked about fencing, and I sat for a long time with my mouth open. I came up with a number of predictable, mundane answers: when I won medals in tournaments, when I beat my opponents regularly, when my master chose me to be his assistant. I knew these all said something about me, but they were not the answer to the question. Finally, with a lot of brain squeezing, I came up with the answer: when what I was doing on the fencing strip was on purpose. Isn’t this supposed to be true of our lives as well?
Overall, I teach to keep the art and science I was taught alive and healthy. This is especially important in a world where the fencing alternative is a thing without art or science, a mechanistic ritual that requires technology to fortify its inherent weaknesses. Traditional fencing, as it has been pointed out, is a human skill that imparts much to the individual. It is important to keep such things of value from fading away into nothing. It doesn’t take long, in an atmosphere of ignorance, for valuable abilities -- abilities that underscore our humanity -- to be lost. I believe that every skill we lose, every skill we relinquish to technology, makes us a little less human. At the very least, it makes us less capable human beings. We have to pass on our information!
Beyond that, I teach what I teach because I think it makes a positive difference in my students’ lives. In their mastery of fencing, they gain a view of what is possible in the world. Fencing seems like such an insurmountable problem when we begin, and then, one day, through much expended effort, we find ourselves actually doing what we once only imagined. Not only does the student gain self-confidence and a more positive picture of themselves, but they also learn the value of persevering.
As to be expected, not every student who starts taking lessons continues with fencing. I have worked with literally thousands of students in the years that I have been teaching, but I think it would be safe to say that the vast majority no longer fence. This is just the way of the world. You hope everyone who comes to you will become a lifelong fencer, but it just doesn’t happen that way. Your next hope is that you can enrich the student’s life while they are with you, that something you say sticks with them. This is more reasonable.
I received a letter from a former student a while back that helps to illustrate why I teach:
I am a former student of yours from Los Angles prior to your moving back East. I cannot tell you how much fun I had and what a great job you did as an instructor. As a kid from East LA riding the bus to your studio, I was often teased and ridiculed by my friends and neighborhood kids, but once at your studio none of that mattered, and it was all well worth it. I continued to fence for about a year after you left, but eventually hung up my foil because of other obligations. I cannot wait for my kids to be old enough so I can tell them about the sport and get them into it. I want to thank you for being a great teacher and part of the wonderful memories of my youth.
I hope you remember me. I was a young Latino kid that would come from East LA to fence. Today, I am the regional consultant for the California State Health Department in the Central Valley. I am at a point where I’ll be in graduate school for epidemiology or law school this summer and will decide within the next few month. In the meantime, I think it’s time to get back into fencing. Thanks again for the positive experience!
I would rather receive a letter like this than have a dozen students winning medals. Why? Because this is about life. This is where fencing impacts the real world. This is about life skills learned!
This raises another question: do I want my students to become champions? Yes and no. I want them to strive to be the best they can be on the fencing strip and in life. I want them to be honest and truthful. I want them to be understanding of themselves and of others. I want them to be balanced individuals. As for winning, winning is something to strive for. No one takes up fencing as a way to continually experience losing. That would be dumb and somewhat weird. Obviously, wanting to win is a good thing; it implies a desire for excellence and mastery. I teach my students, then, a process by which they can develop those skills that will maximize their possibilities for fencing success throughout their lives. If they seek to become champions, I give them the vehicle to achieve this goal. But I do not put becoming a champion above all else in life, and I am leery of those that do.
Anyway, this is why I teach.