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Visiting Zhao Changjun

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Visiting Zhao Changjun: A Personal Account

Written May 27th, 2014

“You should never meet your heroes.” —Alan Carr, someone who has clearly never met Zhao Changjun

A couple weeks ago, I decided I would go to New Jersey to visit my Wushu “idol” of sorts, Zhao Changjun.  It would on the weekend of Memorial Day, after I had taken my university final exams of the semester, and right before my summer classes.  For me, this was a big opportunity, because I had never planned a trip quite like this before.  Travelling to see one of, if not the greatest Wushu legends and champions of all time was a pretty big deal, at least for me.  In this context, I am talking mainly about modern Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport and competitive purposes.  The practice of modern Wushu is standardized into two disciplines; Taolu (套路; tàolù, forms), and Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), also known as Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting).  As Zhao Changjun was a professional champion in Taolu, this will be my specific area of discussion, but this write-up will also extend to traditional Chinese martial arts as well, given the individual we are talking about.  Before I go into what my experience was like this past weekend, let me try to explain why and how I could put this man on such a high pedestal (I should point out that at least 50% of this article will be devoted to how much I think Zhao Changjun is the greatest Wushu martial artist of all time.  It may be more than that, but I will try to minimize that possibility.  I make no promises.).  This is the next edition of “A Personal Account”: “Visiting Zhao Changjun.”

I am ashamed to admit that at first, I didn’t think much of Zhao Changjun.  I knew that he was the model for the Group B Compulsory Daoshu Taolu, also known as 6th Duan Daoshu or “Old Compulsory Daoshu, due its role as the first International Compulsory Routine for broadsword (刀; dāo, broadsword) competition event.  However, as far as a performer, I initially didn’t think he was that great.  This was because I was comparing him to Yuan Wenqing, who I considered at the time to be the single best Wushu performer with a heavy bias.  But that was before I really took the time to do my research on Zhao Changjun, and realized how awesome he really was in his own right.  As I found out later, Zhao Changjun had many qualities that most other Wushu athletes, even Yuan Wenqing, didn’t have.

To start, Zhao Changjun is one of, if not the most respected old school Wushu champion from the ’70s and ’80s.  He has the longest running record as a reigning champion and is most popularly known as Jet Li’s competitive rival in the ’70s (and for the record, I like Zhao Changjun more); There is a saying in Wushu communities that “the ’70s belong to Jet, but the ’80s belonged to Zhao.”  Performance-wise, he is known for his exceptional explosiveness, speed and furious intention.  In the Kung Fu magazine article “Donnie Yen: The Evolution of an American Martial Artist” by Stephan Berwick, Donnie Yen has been quoted as saying that Zhao Changjun was “‘probably the greatest Wushu athlete China ever produced.  This guy was the most explosive Wushu stylist [Donnie] ever saw’” (keeping in mind that Donnie has also worked with Jet Li, the most popular exponent of Wushu onscreen.  Also, it is interesting to note that Donnie and Stephan traveled to Xi’an to train with Zhao Changjun as well as his coach Bai Wenxiang, “‘for renewed training in contemporary and traditional Wushu’”, after Donnie had said he lost interest in modern Wushu after his training experience with the Beijing Wushu Team).  On top of being a champion athlete of his time, Zhao Changjun was also the co-inventor of modern Wushu Ditangquan (地躺拳; Dìtǎngquán), and was understandably the style’s first competitive champion.  But these things alone are not what make him great.

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As great as he is as a competitive modern Wushu athlete, Zhao Changjun is arguably even greater as a real martial artist.  Before his professional Wushu career, he was trained traditionally in Tan Tui (弹腿; tántuǐ, Springing Leg), and Chaquan (查拳; cháquán), two traditional northern Chinese martial arts styles which contributed to the standardization of modern Wushu Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist), as well as Ma Style Tongbei (马氏通备; Mǎshìtōngbèi, not to be confused with the traditional Wushu style 通背拳; tōngbèiquán, literally “through-the-back” fist) under the late Grandmaster Ma Xianda, who also taught Jet Li his alleged favorite style of Wushu, Fanziquan (翻子拳; fānziquán, tumbling or “rotating” fist, literally “turning/flipping fist”).  What makes this fact even more beautiful is how you can see the influence of these traditional styles in his competition forms today.   Throughout Zhao Changjun’s many Taolu performances, he has included techniques and movements from Tan Tui, Chaquan, and even the great fanquan (翻拳; fānquán, “turning”/“flipping” punch) technique from Fanziquan in his Changquan routines.  His staff forms also have traditional movements and strikes reminiscent of Fengmogun (疯魔棍; fēngmógùn, literally “crazy devil staff”, a staff form that belongs to the traditional Wushu style of 劈挂掌; pīguàzhǎng, literally “chop-hanging palm”) (I have also tried to inject my personal competition routines with similar movements).

Because of these attributes, Zhao Changjun has not only been observed to have a strong foundation in Chinese martial arts that many critics find to be lacking in modern Wushu today, but he also understands the traditional, martial and fighting side of Wushu that so many people today seem to remain ignorant to.  Zhao Changjun was featured in the Kung Fu Magazine article “Where Wushu Went Wrong”, in which he relates two stories regarding his martial arts experience.  The first was when he and his teammates allegedly were forced to fight after an argument at a movie theater.  Given that China at the time was fraught with violent conflicts, this seems quite credible and very likely to happen, regardless of whether or not it is true.  The second is where he had the opportunity to meet and have a friendly exchange with Muhammad Ali, arguably and notably “the greatest” boxer of all time, where “Ali quickly relented” after Zhao Changjun began employing his Tan Tui kicking techniques (although to be fair, Ali was already retired and suffering from Parkinson’s disease by this time).

In addition to this, Zhao Changjun has proven that he is just as critical a thinker of Wushu as he was arguably his greatest exponent.  In “Where Wushu Went Wrong”, he comments on modern Wushu’s shortcomings and then-recent state shortly after the sport’s first rejection from the Olympics.  In an interview “Master Zhao Changjun: In His Own Words” by Mastering WUSHU, he also details his experiences in both traditional and modern Wushu training, and how to better define modern Wushu’s place as part of Chinese martial arts.  The combination of all these things that make up Zhao Changjun’s experience as a martial artist and representative of Wushu is what has earned my respect.  It is because of this man that I was encouraged to think about my practice of Wushu deeper and more critically as more than just a competitive sport and performance item, but as an actual of style of martial arts.  In “Master Zhao Changjun: In His Own Words”, Zhao Changjun said, “‘…Sanshou and Taolu are in different sections in Wushu competition, but actually they both are part of Wushu.  If you want to be a real Wushu expert, you shall practice both, that’s the way to be a good Wushu practitioner.  It is not good if you only practice Taolu and do know anything about the other method, other application or other practice.  That is like walking with one leg, not two legs.’”  So I took his words to heart, and decided to take the opportunity to learn Sanshou at my Wushu school as well, in order to make myself a better martial artist and well-rounded Wushu practitioner.  In “Where Wushu Went Wrong”, he said, “‘There should be a good relationship between traditional and modern wushu. They should have more interchange. This could lengthen the competitive life of modern wushu. It could increase development and provide more room to grow. You need two legs to walk: one is modern wushu, one is traditional. You cannot give up one of them.’”  So I took every opportunity I could to observe and learn about traditional Wushu in order further my understanding of Wushu overall.  This man’s views and sayings shaped the way I practice and view Wushu to this day.  So to say he is nothing short of my Wushu idol and hero is in fact an understatement.  To me, this man is the epitome of Chinese Wushu, and the kind of real martial arts knowledge and skill it can offer through its in-depth study and practice.

(To get a look at what Zhao Changjun looked like at arguably his best and in his prime, I implore you to take a look at the first 3 minutes of this video.  This is the video that truly made me impressed with Zhao Changjun as a Wushu Taolu performer:

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Following his competitive career, Zhao Changjun established the Xi’an Zhao Changjun Wushu Academy located in Xi’an, Shaanxi, China, and a much smaller Wushu school, simply Zhao Changjun Wushu Academy, based in New Jersey, United States of America.  As far as doing research, reading about him in articles and watching YouTube videos go, that was the last I’d heard about Zhao Changjun.  That is, until I attended the 2010 US Junior Wushu Team Trials.  This was the competition that would decide who would represent USA at the World Junior Wushu Championships.  At that time, I was competitor who was competing in the Group A Compulsory category.  On the day prior to the actual competition, where the dignitaries at the judges’ table were being introduced, one of the names that were mentioned was “Zhao Changjun.”  At this point, I audibly went “Ohhhhhh” and started clapping my hand.  It is interesting to note that I was the only one doing this (apparently none of the other kids knew who this man was.  Either that, or they didn’t they care, which is a shame).  After the formal proceedings, when I saw Zhao Changjun talking to the head coach of my Wushu school, I was encouraged to take the opportunity meet and talk with him.  When I did, both my head coach and dad explained to him that he was my 偶像 (ǒuxiàng, idol), to which he simply grinned and laughed.  That was the first time I took a picture with what was to me the greatest Wushu athlete of all time, and it was also the beginning of my tradition to take a picture with him at every meeting.  The following day, as I was preparing for my first competition event, I couldn’t help myself but stare at where Zhao Changjun was sitting idly, who kindly waved to me as he saw me (I vaguely remember waving back).  Although the competition was a disappointing experience for me, having not made the team, and also having made embarrassing mistakes in front of Zhao Changjun no less, I would never forget that experience as the first time I met with Zhao Changjun.

The second time I would see Zhao Changjun was at his 2011 New Jersey International Wushu-Kungfu Tournament.  Clearly he remembered me from the previous year, because as soon as he saw me, he waved and said greeted me very warmly.  Although my participation in this tournament was a “practice competition” in preparation for the 2011 US Wushu Team Trials, I took this opportunity very seriously.  After all, I would be performing once again in the presence Zhao Changjun, the greatest performer of Wushu.  This was also my first time competing with my own personal optional (自选; zìxuǎn, individual) routines, and not compulsory (规定; guīdìng) ones.  Again, I made mistakes with my jumps.  But according to my mom, Zhao Changjun apparently stopped whatever he was doing to watch my broadsword performance.  When I had the opportunity to shake his hand a take a picture with him again, Zhao Changjun said something in Chinese to my dad, which I did not understand.  My dad explained to me afterwards that Zhao Changjun said he originally wanted me to perform for him as part of the masters’ demonstration in the tournament, but was afraid I would be too tired to compete.  Even though it’s more than likely that Zhao Changjun said this just to be nice, the fact that he took notice and commented on my performances, for better or for worse, satisfies me to no end.  When one of the greatest Wushu legends and champions, and your idol, compliments you on your performance, I think you have a right to be happy.  And needless to say, I was.

I saw Zhao Changjun again at the 2013 US Wushu Team Trials.  Once again, the day before the competition events, I was able to find him with his coach Bai Wenxiang, who was a Wushu athlete and coach of the Shaanxi Wushu Team.  I knew that Bai Wenxiang was also traditionally trained, having studied Ma Style Tongbei under Ma Xianda as well, and was also a foremost expert on traditional Wushu.  Naturally, I was able get a picture with this gem too.  And again, after my broadsword event, I was told by my mom that Zhao Changjun was watching me the whole time, despite the fact that he was previously engaged in a conversation with someone else.  It amazed me once again that not only did this man recognize me, but he took the time to pay attention to my amateur performance.  Unfortunately, I wouldn’t get the chance to actually talk to him, but that would change this year.  This is where this past weekend comes in.

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My plan to go to New Jersey this past weekend consisted of a roughly developed plan.  Actually, it was more of a set of intentions than a plan; I would pay a visit to Zhao Changjun’s school to see what it looked like on Friday, and then spectate at his tournament on Sunday.  If I was lucky, maybe I would get to see how he actually teaches in person.  Somewhere in that time, I would take another a picture with him to continue my tradition, and if I was lucky, I might take one with Bai Wenxiang as well.  It all started with a phone call that was listed under the contact information from his school’s website.  The first successful phone call was with a woman, who I found difficult to converse with, mostly because my Chinese was so disorganized.  The second phone call was one I received, this time with what sounded like a young man (who may or may not have been Zhao Changjun’s son), who told me that their classes were from 4:30 to 8:30 pm.  So now I knew the general time period that I had to be there, if I wanted to see anything at all.

Although I was planning to go alone, both my parents opted to go with me under the premise that I was unfamiliar with how to get there.  We left Friday afternoon, and the commute was nearly three hours long, but it was a direct drive from my parents’ house straight to Zhao Changjun’s school.  The moment I arrived, I realized that this would the highlight of my trip.  The studio that Zhao Changjun was teaching at was rather small, tucked away in the corner of the shopping plaza under a simplistic red “KUNG FU sign.  The door and windows of the studio had the actual name of the school, “Zhao Changjun Wushu Academy” with a schedule of classes, and was decorated with photos of his students at performances and competition events, and a poster promoting his annual tournament.

As I walked in, I recognized Zhao Changjun’s voice booming throughout the whole studio, directed at his students, which confirmed one thing; he did indeed teach his classes in person, as a good instructor should.  The first class I saw as I walked in was a children’s class, where Zhao Changjun appeared to be instructing a chain whip jiti (集体; jítǐ , group sets).  As my parents and I found seats near the front of the studio to watch, I was approached by a couple people, including the young man who I believe I talked with earlier on the phone, who asked what my interest in the school was.  One of them was Ma Jun, who I deduced may also have been the woman I was talking with in my first phone call, and who I later found out was one of the coaches at the school, and had also trained under Ma Xianda, Bai Wenxiang and Zhao Changjun.

The second class was an adult Taiji class.  The warm-up at the beginning of the class, which seemed to be uniform for all the classes, consisting of wrist, knee and neck rotations, all at Zhao Changun’s count, followed by the signature Piguazhang arm movements, and finally by various stretches in the center split position.  There were no long periods of jogging or extraneous splits being performed at all, just a mild, manageable warm-up for amateur students.  Practice included the breaking down of certain movements, such as the yunshou (云手; yúnshǒu, cloud hands) and danbian (单鞭; dānbiān, single whip) techniques, and two whole run-throughs of the complete Taijiquan routine.  I also noticed that Zhao Changjun predominantly spoke in Mandarin Chinese, with occasional uses of English terms like, “Nice!” and “Good.”  Whenever someone was visibly lost or seemed to forget a movement, Zhao Changjun.  He didn’t scold, yell, berate, or look at the person like he/she was stupid.  He simply stood next to them and physically guided them through the movements, rather than spend his time talking.  He was patient, calm, and understanding of the fact that these were amateur Americans, not professional Chinese athletes.  There also seemed to be a rehearsal of a Chaquan performance by an older female performer, and a Piguazhang performance by an older male performer that went by the name of Valentino, whom I conversed with earlier.  Somewhere in-between the two run-throughs, Zhao Changjun came directly to where I was sitting, and shook my hand with both of his, all the while smiling and greeting me and my parents warmly, and then returned to continue teaching his class.  At the end of his class, Zhao Changjun came over again to sit down and have short conversation with me until his next class.  Let me repeat that.  Zhao Changjun, the greatest Wushu legend and champion of all time, sat down to talk with me.  The fact that he would spend even a second of his valuable time on an insignificant fan boy like me was truly humbling.  He asked me why I was here this weekend, and I gave him the truth; I wanted to see Zhao Changjun.  I told him he taught very well, at which he smiled.  Shortly after, he returned to teach his next and final class of the day.

The final class seemed to be a mix of adults and children, but they were clearly his advanced students.  Unlike his other classes, which ran for about an hour, this class seemed to only run for half an hour, and began with the standard Wushu cardio warm-up.  The main focus of the class seemed to be a rehearsal for a jiti performance with several run-throughs, in addition to a Xingyiquan performance by a senior male performer, all of which I guessed I would see at his tournament on Sunday.  Shortly after, Zhao Changjun left early, perhaps to prepare for his tournament, so I unfortunately was not able to talk more with him.  After dinner, my parents and I checked into the Hampton Inn for the weekend, where we had made reservations prior.  So that was the end of my Friday.

In review, I realized something about Zhao Changjun as an individual, which earned him more respect from me than ever before; he was truly a humble individual, as his student Valentino pointed out in our short conversation earlier.  As I understand it, Zhao Changjun had the chance to make movies and TV series, having previously starred in some, and follow the road that Wu Jing and Zhao Wenzhuo (Vincent Zhao) took.  Instead, he chose to stay involved within the Wushu community, and give back to it as a coach.  What’s more, by keeping his operation small and local, Zhao Changjun has avoided the politics that have been known to pervade the national competitive circuit in both China and the US (perhaps this had to do with his experiences during his professional competitive career, but this is just me speculating).  By not making a move to establish a political position in either the US Wushu or Chinese Wushu communities, Zhao Changjun demonstrated that he clearly has no wish to make a name for himself (as if he already didn’t have one that was proven by his abilities), become successful, or profit off of his students as if they were tools for his business.  He seems to do what he does simply because he cares about those who are learning under him, as well as the knowledge he is passing on, and nothing more.  You could see it in the way he carries himself, as well as the way he behaves with others, regardless of who they are or what their position is relative to his own.  In this context, anyone who is serious in learning Wushu would be lucky to have this man as a teacher.  This only adds to the fact I respect Zhao Changjun more than any other Wushu stylist.  Although I cannot ever presume to know Zhao Changjun personally, I found that he just seemed to be a better person than most martial arts and Wushu instructors here in the US (an observation that my dad concurs with), and I found that I was privileged to see proof of this during my stay.

On Sunday, I had ended up pulling an all-nighter, partly because I was busy procrastinating and working on the previous write-up for Jiayoowushu.com, and partly because I was so excited to see Zhao Changjun again.  The 2014 New Jersey International Wushu-Kungfu Tournament, as designated on the program I received from Ma Jun on Friday, took place at the usual venue of Moorestown High School, and ran from 9:00 am to 4:00 am.  My parents and I checked out of our hotel in the morning, and arrived at the venue early to purchase spectator tickets at the front desk, which were $15.00 each.  We entered the school basketball court where the tournament was taking place, and found seats at the top of the center bleachers, where we could see everything.  The competition area was divided into four rings; Area A with the green carpet closest to the entrance, Area B with the red carpet at the center of the court, and Areas C and D which shared the last third of the court.

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As indicated in the program, there were many dignitaries in attendance, including Wu Bin, one of the forefathers of modern Wushu and coach of the first generation Beijing Wushu Team, Bai Wenxiang, Chen Sitan, the “Taiji Prince (太极王子; Tàijíwángzǐ)” of the ’80s and ’90s, and former Beijing Wushu Team member and champion Jiang Bangjun.  Strangely, though An Tianrong, who is a renowned professor of Wushu and has written various articles about Wushu for Kung Fu Magazine, was listed in the program, he did not make an appearance (either that or I just didn’t see him.  Oh well, there went another photo opportunity).  The opening ceremony began with a speech by none other than Zhao Changjun, along with formal proceedings and exchanges between dignitaries, followed by various performances.  Performances included a paired lion dance by Wu Dang Kung Fu Academy, the set of performances as rehearsed by Zhao Changjun Wushu Academy (Wu Bin seemed especially entertained by the Chaquan performance, as he was applauding enthusiastically afterwards), pudao by Andrey Tikhonov, double chain whip (by someone I am assuming to be a student of Zhao Changjun’s, and a judge at the tournament), Chen Style Taijiquan by Sun Changrong, two handed straight sword by Wang Mingxun, Bagua deer horn knives by Sam Zhang, Zhaobao Taijquan by Malee Khow, a lovely performance of 42 Taijiquan routine by Chen Sitan (which is appropriate, as he was the model for official video of the compulsory routine), and a final group Taijiquan practice, with welcome and open participation, led by Chen Sitan, Malee Khow and Bai Wenxiang.  And with that, the competition finally began with its first events.

As far as my interest in what the actual competition had to offer, sorry to say I wasn’t exactly personally invested, so I didn’t really pay much attention to what was going on in the different competition areas.  However, I will say that I noted some pretty standout and impressive performances from kids of NOVA (Northern Virginia) Wushu Academy, PMAA (Professional Martial Arts Academy), and US Wushu Academy (but again, I wasn’t paying much attention, and I unfortunately couldn’t really be bothered with finding out the names of individuals, only with recognizing their affiliated schools).

Sometime during the competition, when my dad pointed out that both Zhao Changjun and Bai Wenxiang were free and unoccupied, I found and took the opportunity to take a picture with both.  What luck!  Shortly afterwards, I also had the privilege to indulge in a short conversation with Bai Wenxiang.  The many topics that we discussed, with what little Chinese I could use, ranged from his work on the Fanziquan Duanwei (段位; duànwèi, formal ranking system), one of many recent efforts to standardize traditional Wushu styles by the CWA (Chinese Wushu Association), and of which Bai Wenxiang was in fact just one of three main contributors, to his Ma Style Tongbei training, the unfortunate passing of Ma Xianda last year, as well as the whereabouts of his son, Ma Yue.  Unfortunately, this was all I was able to touch upon, before Zhao Changjun interjected, as he needed Bai Wenxiang’s to help manage the tournament.  During this time, I was also able to get a picture with Wu Bin (although my first attempt ended up with no actual photos, so I embarrassingly had to approach him again) whom I had the privilege of meeting and shaking hands with when he visited my Wushu school about four years prior.  As we first took photos, Wu Bin asked me in Chinese what style I did, to which I simply replied, “Changquan.”  Near the end of the day, I also attempted to ask to converse with Zhao Changjun himself, but he kindly refused, as he had to focus on wrapping up the tournament (well that was a bummer, but at least he was nice about it).  One of the things that I noticed, which disturbed me to some degree, was the fact that none of the kids or adults here seemed to know who these great individuals were.  As the next generation of Wushu practitioners has approaches, not only have I noticed a shift in the trend of practice, but I’ve also noticed a shift in where respect and recognition has gone.  In more recent times, practitioners seem to idolize performers like He Jingde and Wu Di, and have no idea who greats like Zhao Changjun are, or who real Wushu masters like Bai Wenxiang, are.  While I don’t mean to put down the later generation of Wushu athletes and performers, I find it sad that barely anybody pays attention to these heroes of old anymore.  This is either because they lack respect, which is a shame, or simply because they don’t know who these people are; I don’t know which is worse.  Either way, this just goes to show where the perceived value of Wushu is being placed.  Whereas people levitated towards popular Wushu athletes like He Jingde and Wu Di, my heroes were real Wushu martial artists like Zhao Changjun and Bai Wenxiang, who were in my eyes the real contributors to Wushu.  Again, it’s a shame that people today do not give respect to or at least recognize these great individuals as true pioneers of Wushu.  Maybe the current generation Wushu community needs to do the actual research and knowledge searching I did to appreciate them like I do.

As the time neared 4:00 pm, I decided that there was nothing left for me, given that I had achieved my objectives and fulfilled the goals of my trip.  Before I made my exit, I decided to say goodbye and thank all of the dignitaries that I had the privilege of meeting and taking pictures with.  I thanked Bai Wenxiang, who was conversing with Wu Bin at the time, for talking with me briefly, and thanked Wu Bin as well.  And finally, I went to shake hands with Zhao Changjun one last time, thanked him for letting me see him, before I finally left.

All in all, I felt that this was a great way to spend my free weekend, before I would have to return to the abyss of university in the summer.  It was very fulfilling to achieve what I wanted; to meet and see my hero Zhao Changjun, see him teach in person, as well as continue my traditional of taking a picture with him, a traditional which I hope to continue keeping alive for many years to come.  I’d like to thank both my parents for being there to support me, especially when they chose to even despite the fact that they were not asked to.  And of course, I would like to thank Zhao Changjun for continuing to be a true inspiration of Wushu to students like myself.  His example continues to be a paragon for serious Wushu martial artists to follow, and I am privileged to say that I had the opportunity to meet this man multiple times.  After visiting Zhao Changjun this past weekend, I can confidently say with a straight face that this man is my hero not simply because of what he has done or achieved in Wushu and martial arts, but also because of how he acts and treats others in real life.  By reading this write-up, I hope people can come to recognize and appreciate the significance that individuals like Zhao Changjun have, not only in how they contribute to Wushu’s understanding as a style of real martial arts and not just a simple sport, but also in how they act and carry themselves as teachers, as role models, and as real people.

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