When rock meets water

Occasionally, and then only for the most fortunate among us, a door opens at some stage of our life revealing the pathway to our destiny. And when your surname means 'bringer of peace', the road ahead seems one you feel compelled to take to achieve true fulfilment. Margaret Evans spoke to Freerk Ykema.

Occasionally, and then only for the most fortunateamong us, a door opens at some stage of our life revealingthe pathway to our destiny. And when your surname means'bringer of peace', the road ahead seems one you feelcompelled to take to achieve true fulfilment. MargaretEvans spoke to Freerk Ykema.

For Freerk Ykema, the realisation of his future pathbecame clear during his secondary teaching career inhis native Netherlands. As a physical education teacher,remedial teacher and, more recently, student counsellor,the gentle, approachable Freerk sensed it was "alreadythe mix" to help him make a real difference to the educationof boys, in particular.

"I already knew the problems of boys and girls asa counsellor and I also saw the learning disabilities,especially of boys, as a remedial teacher. But I amalso a father of one son and two daughters so I askedmyself what is really important for my children andmy students at school to learn. Along with maths, Englishand geography, there must be something more, like lifeskills," explained Freerk during a recent visit to Perthto address a major teaching and learning conference.

His obvious empathy with young people and a backgroundin various Eastern disciplines including judo and TaiChi, which he has practised for the past 17 years, pointedhim on what he terms "a pathway to spirituality".

"Particularly in Tai Chi I felt the connection betweenphysical activity and the mental, social and spiritual.But a lot of boys aren't interested in Tai Chi becauseit is so soft. They don't understand the power of theflow."

The interplay of physical strength and flexibilitycontained in a willingness to "flow" has evolved intoa program Freerk is now introducing to receptive audiencesaround the world, including an increasing number herein Australia.

For instance, the recent Perth gathering, the 2002Excellence in Teaching and Learning Conference organisedby the Fremantle-based Centre for Excellence in Teaching,attracted 400 educators from throughout Australia.

His approach, which he calls the Rock and Water Program,builds on the complementary strengths of 'the rock'-uncompromising and hard, but also firm and assertive- and the flexibility and willingness to cooperate andflow around the other of 'the water'. His underlyingdrive is always to improve a young person's abilityto communicate; to overcome the barriers facing boys,in particular, to expressing their thoughts and feelingsand true personality.

Again, his background in Eastern spiritual and martialarts came to his aid with the program's name. "I sawit in a book on martial arts and I knew immediately'This is it,'" said Freerk.

Physicality is a very important part of the programwhich can successfully begin, he says, when boys areabout nine. It is now taught increasingly to girls aswell, but his initial focus was on helping boys in hisown country and in many others with Australia high onthe list, who are missing out on life's opportunities.

"Education problems, vandalism, lack of motivation,lack of desire, self destructive behaviour"- Freerk'slitany of the woes facing boys in his own country hasan all too familiar ring about it.

When he was asked almost a decade ago to join a groupof men to set up a program in the Netherlands to preventsexual violence, his first thought was that the focuswas too narrow - and time has proven him correct. "Iknew boys had a problem with violence. They are perpetratorsof 90 per cent of violence, but they are also victimsof 90 per cent of violence. Nevertheless, most boyswho came into my office weren't talking about violenceof any sort. They were just asking 'What can I do?'They just felt lost," said Freerk whose open, friendlynature seems perfectly cast for the role of school counsellor.

His own grounding in Tai Chi has provided him witha platform to launch his novel program which he describesas "physical, social teaching". Showing boys, and agrowing number of girls, to "centre and to ground" inresponse to threats, stress or other problems they face,is his starting point.

"In general," says Freerk, "when boys meet problemsthey have two options - to fight or just run away. Girlsdon't do either. They are just paralysed, passive. Alot of girls just feel fear and fear paralyses."

The difference, he explains, is to do with the levelof testosterone in the blood with boys having nine timesmore than girls. As any parent of a teenage boy willvouch, testosterone is rampant, but the wide variationbetween boys and girls comes as a surprise to many people,according to Freerk.

Along with his mantra "to centre and to ground", the'bringer of peace' speaks to his students in many differentcountries of building a rock and water house. Its buildingblocks are self control, self reflection and self confidence,and for girls, a fourth, stepping into action. Together,they form a solid foundation for the floors above ofsafety, assertiveness and social skill training.

Encouraging girls to do something as simple as cleaningthe windows, or starting to whistle is all the responsethey need to banish their stress or fear. It's the 'steppinginto action' Freerk is convinced is their pathway tofeeling stronger and more secure. "With boys, we teachthem to centre and to ground to avoid a response ofstarting to hit or to run away immediately."

The macho image of manhood conveyed in video storeshelves around the world, not to mention the rap culturepunching its beat out of the United States, is a hugebarrier to a teenage boy gaining a true understandingof himself and his place in the world.

Freerk approaches this dilemma by avoiding any talkof relaxation techniques like breath control even thoughit's a fundamental skill in his program. "Instead, weteach them the belly is the centre of power and they'reinterested in that one," he laughs. "After that, weteach them the belly is also the centre of calmness.They're interested in that one, too, because they knowthat even when you're strong, if you can't control yourpower, people will laugh at you." Only then, says Freerk,does he dare to add that the belly is the core of sensitivityand feeling: "And when you are centred, you feel more".

A typical lesson starts with 10 minutes of physicalexercise followed by a short chat, with the patternrepeated for an overall mix of about "80 per cent physicalactivity and 20 per cent good discussion".

He long ago identified improving communication skillsas the key to a young person's future happiness andsuccess. "The ability to communicate well is more importantthan it used to be 20 years ago and far more importantthan 50 years ago."

The response of girls in his classes and seminarsto the question "What does it take to become a realman in our society?" is revealing and very consistent,says Freerk. "Words like caring, loving, sensitive,communicative all come before strong, but we don't teachboys to be like that! It's probably a real shock toboys, but it's a real eye opener."

His followup question is always "What does it taketo become a real woman?" And, invariably, the answeris almost identical. "So to be a real man and a realwoman is almost the same thing. The only differenceis the way of getting there."

Australian society with its culture of laconic, laidback males more comfortable sharing cricket scores andfooty feats than anything vaguely intimate, is probablyone his biggest challenges. As Freerk diplomaticallyputs it, "Compared with the Dutchman, the Australianman is still rather macho, rather silent. He has themask of being determined, but it's just a mask".

"The Dutchman also carries a mask, of course, butin our society it's more natural to communicate, menwith women, boys with girls." He feels Australian boysare "more isolated in themselves" and less able to expresstheir thoughts and feelings than their counterpartsin the Netherlands or Belgium.

The problem is only compounded by fathers or maleteachers who are equally silent and unable or unwillingto express their feelings. And so the cycle continuesinto the next generation.

At the same time, though, and a bright ray of hopefor our Aussie boys' future happiness, is the swellinginterest in the Rock and Water Program in this country.Freerk already spends about six months of the year touringAustralia- "in all the big cities and many of the smallerones"- passing on his message. Last year alone he trainedalmost 500 Australian teachers in his technique, witha similar number booked into seminars this year. Australianmothers and women teachers are responding in force withthe balance at his talks now tipping heavily in theirfavour. It's a trend Freerk welcomes because, as hesays, "Teachers who are mothers see the problem withtheir own sons and their male students. But a lot ofmale teachers don't see it because they have the sameproblem."

The changing energy and 'water' power of women inparticular to communicate and to come together, maybea turning point. Freerk certainly thinks so: "In allWestern societies boys are missing out, but in Australia,I think, you're getting on top of it."

Rock and Water Institutes have now been establishedin Western Australia and Queensland. Freerk will returnto country WA for seminars in May and June.