Friday, January 13, 2017

Being a Student v. Being a Deshi

One of my colleagues, the Budo Bum, wrote recently about the differences between training in Japan and in the US. His major point was that Japanese budo students have a culturally-learned sense of discipline that they bring to their practice. While he does not state it specifically, the strong suggestion is that US students do not.

This point has lately been on my mind, as well. I find the difference rather stark; like the difference between someone being a student, and being a deshi (弟子). Most American budoka would consider themselves students. In the current climate, a student is someone who pays a teacher or an institution (like a college or trade school) in order to access knowledge. While the definition of deshi is a little harder to pin down, one of the attributes is to not only be a paying and passive learner, but to also take some responsibility for the health of the group as a whole. This sense of responsibility could mean helping to take care of the dojo space or assisting the teacher, not just on the dojo floor, but at other group activities as well.

In former generations in the US, being a student might have been closer to being a deshi, entailing a more personal relationship to a teacher. My parents, when I was a young child, would sometimes drop by to see an old university professor of theirs (I don't remember his name; I remember both of them referring to him, affectionately, as "prof"). They visited and corresponded with him until his death, and considered him a big influence on their subsequent life and work. Former students of my father, in turn, would come visit him occasionally, just to say hello.

Nowadays, however, college students are treated to a more consumer-based experience. They pay tuition and the teachers deliver information which will hopefully allow them to graduate into good jobs. As an adjunct professor many years ago, I experienced the beginning of this phenomenon. Typically, students would sometimes plead for passing grades for doing almost no work. More surprisingly, I recall a former student who actually launched an investigation (on his own, but involving the university) because he got an A- from me and thought he deserved an A. As a consumer, he felt he was being ripped off. Silly me - I thought he was there to learn.

Budo dojo in the US face a similar quandary, in a way. The budo teachers who strive to give as authentic an experience as possible find themselves up against a pay-for-services environment. The students pay a fee, and, in return, feel they are entitled to the knowledge (and sometimes even the remembered experiences) possessed by the teacher. While some US dojo have adapted a consumerist line, with varying degrees of success, the more traditional places find themselves a little out of step with the times.

When I was first training in the US, the consumerist model had not quite caught on yet. My original teacher was Japanese, and, though he emigrated shortly after the Pacific War and had lived in NYC for many years, he was nevertheless a fairly traditional guy. The sempai who was dojocho at the time was a very uptight person who seemed to me to perpetually have a pencil stuck up his butt. However, he taught us newbies something invaluable - how to behave in the dojo, and how to behave around Sensei all of the time.

"Sensei will never tell you when you're being rude," he once said, "but he will remember everything that you do." As I said, the dojocho was a real stickler, but a good teacher of the types of protocols that would be expected of kohai in the dojo. One thing he did consistently was assign a deshi to assist Sensei whenever we had a public demonstration. That person helped carry our teacher's equipment and keikogi, made sure his zouri were turned around for when he left the demo stage so he could easily step into them, and made sure he had water or food or anything else he needed. Eventually that job became mine more or less the whole time, and expanded to include duties as dojocho after the original person moved on.

Eventually, as I became a teacher on my own, I was impressed that even Japanese students in the US had no interest in modeling behavior more in tune with a deshi rather than a student-consumer. I don't know if it was because they did not have a more traditional upbringing or if it was because they simply got used to the American way of doing things. One time, I was late for okeiko and gave instructions for it to start without me. Upon entering the room, I was gratified to see the students diligently practicing, but disappointed that no one acknowledged that I was there. When I mentioned it to my Japanese student (who, as a senior, should have called the group to attention), he simply said, "Yes, but this is America." I responded that it was America, yes, but also the dojo.

I have, in my experience, met good students who were bad deshi. Good students are attentive at okeiko, and pay their fees on time, but are much less likely to pitch in when help is needed, whether taking care of equipment or planning a demo. I have seen students simply observe a senior or a teacher struggling with a heavy suitcase or equipment bag and do nothing to help. I have also seen guest teachers from Japan left alone after teaching a seminar, somehow expected to manage on their own in a strange environment by the host dojo once practice is over. I have stepped in on at least one of these occasions, and was surprised, when I asked the host dojo, that no one had even considered the possibility that someone who speaks no English in a foreign environment might actually be in need of assistance.

Mostly, though, I have seen passivity when it comes to the life of the dojo - students come to okeiko, but the relative health of the group doesn't seem to matter. It's as though, as long as they pay their class fees, there should be a practice to attend. I have met teachers who will shell out the difference between fees and studio rents from their own pockets when the number of dojo members drops through attrition, and no one notices. Instead of the sense that the teacher might be imparting valuable knowledge, the students feel that since they paid, they are entitled to a "product" in return.

I may sound like I am whining, but as one of my old sempai used to say, this is basic. My original teacher would have written me off ages ago for such indifferent behavior. Instead, because I paid attention to my hardassed sempai, my relationship with my original teacher was much closer. He arranged for me to homestay (and saved a starving grad student a lot of money) during visits to Japan. He also arranged for me to study with teachers there. Was it sometimes exhausting? Yes, of course - all those extra hours schlepping out to his home in Queens, getting to events early so that I could help him, snapping to when he was on the other end of a phone line and asking how I could be of assistance. However, my practice, and, in fact, my life, would have been much less rich without his help and advice.

One of my non-budo friends has pointed out that Americans do not necessarily know traditional protocol. That's true, but I responded that he himself assists older or disabled people who need help on the street. He even carries extra bandaids with him in case he comes across someone who needs one. While specific protocols have to be learned, courtesy, or supporting the welfare of a community, is not that culturally-specific. My dilemma now is how to teach my budoka-in-training what they should know already - that they should give a damn.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Why I don't write

The very small number of people who have read this blog with some regularity have probably noticed that there hasn't been much here lately. There are many reasons why, but I thought I would articulate a few (and bear with me: writing is like exercise. If you don't do it much, you don't do it as well).

It seems fitting, this week, to bring up this particular reason: I am tired of writing an anonymous blog. But, it is the only blog I can write. Ergo, if I can only write anonymously, but I am tired of being anonymous, the irresistible force is meeting the immovable object.

Why anonymous? Why not just come out and say who I am? I'll tell you, specifically. For the past 10+ years, I have been cyberstalked by a very persistent guy (he has no problem not concealing his identity, unlike myself). Many years ago, I published one of my first articles. It took awhile, but an online journal editor contacted me and said he was going to publish a rebuttal to my theoretical article, and did I want to respond? I thought this was sort of amusing, at the time. I mean, it was a theoretical article, sort of an exploratory piece. How does one rebut someone's theory? Certainly counter with one of your own; feel free. But a rebuttal?

So, I said, sure, bring it on. The author made some reasonable points, and did posit a theory of his own, but something about the tone of his article bothered me. I could feel the undertone - how dare I, a female, take on this subject? In the midst of attempting to pick apart my theoretical take, there was a sense that I was not really supposed to be writing about this subject at all. But I did my best, in my response, to note that alternative theories were certainly welcome. However, I could not resist pointing out that at least one source he said I had "neglected" to consult had not been published until after my original article appeared. I tried to keep things cordial, if a little cheeky, because that was sort of a goofy mistake on his part, let's face it. The author immediately wanted to publish yet another "rebuttal" further articulating why the premise of my article was "wrong," as he put it in the email the editor received. Maybe sensing trouble, the online editor declined, and suggested alternative possibilities for publication. This prompted a slightly menacing email wherein the author suggested I was a poor scholar who was being "protected" by my "friends" and he was being prevented from pointing out my true lack of merit, or something like that. (For what it's worth, other people disagree. To date, it is the only article I ever published that has been anthologized several times.)

In subsequent years, I blocked him from my Facebook feed, once he found me. Most recently (as in this year) I made the mistake of commenting, very briefly, in an email forum and got a prompt email from him, slightly mellower now, but still suggesting that we "engage in discussion" of his point of view. I deleted the email. And I will not comment in that forum again.

Unlike some other writers who are sometimes physically threatened for daring to write about subjects not considered sufficiently "female", I have not been physically threatened. This person lives a good distance away from me. Mostly I'm just tired. Because I know that if I engage him, I will never be free of him. There is no argument to be won; there would just be endless back and forth about how I am somehow "wrong," and he is somehow "right." Of course, ironically, I do not even buy all of the theoretical arguments I made in that piece years ago, though I still agree with the core of it. And I have not published *any* scholarly writing in a very long time, alas.

One of my colleagues is about to publish a collection of his blog posts as a "for real" book. His posts always bring comment: some trolling, some stupid, but much of it complimentary. He can use his real name. He has enhanced his reputation. I am sure people will buy his book. (I won't. Having helped edit most of the posts, I expect a free copy.) Anyone who does not think that misogyny holds back scholarship, or independent thought, can just read the above story again.

I prefer the word "misogyny", which means hatred of women, as opposed to "sexism," which sort of sounds like a minor problem, not to be taken seriously. In the wake of this week's election, I am fascinated by the commentariat asking our new prez-elect to renounce racism, while his misogyny is once more swept under the rug, except for the keening by a few female columnists. But that is probably fodder or another column that I will not be writing here.

There are other reasons; one of the big ones being I don't think people are really interested in what I have to say. And/or maybe I don't have as much to say as I used to. I don't lately seem to have a burning desire to send my thoughts out into the ether. I used to just do it for myself, and not worry about whether people read it or not. But lately, I do seem to care, and I have nothing to say.

So, for those people who have read these little posts - thanks. Sometimes it felt great to get stuff off of my chest, and if it created some entertainment, I'm happy. Maybe some people learned something. That's nice too. I am not going to delete the blog - it can stay here. Maybe I'll make a contribution again at some point. But there's nothing more to see here for now.

Monday, August 22, 2016

I'm not mad, it's just my RBF (resting budo face)

A couple of weeks back, I attended a gasshuku (usually translated, literally, as a "training camp," it might more acceptably be called a "weekend intensive"). I am pleased to report that approximately 20% of the attendees were female. In my many years of seminars, this was the most women I've ever seen at an event like this in the U.S.; and it was most gratifying.

It could be because of the sheer number of women, but the organizers did not seem to be quite so pandering, either. There was no discussion (that I overheard) of whether it was "proper" for a woman to not put one knee down in certain squatting positions (a remark I have never heard a Japanese teacher make, but I have certainly heard it in the U.S.). And no one expected us to be "nice" or to "smile," not even for the group photo. It was a budo seminar, after all, where the object of the techniques we were learning was to badly hurt, or kill, an opponent. Come to think of it, smiling might have been considered a little creepy in this context.

I have been going to events like this in the U.S. for a very long time - about thirty years. Much of the time I was the only female; or one of two or three at most. (Inevitably, one or more of the other women would be married to a male participant). It was not that long ago that I was observing for a day at one event and was accosted by a woman (a non-participant) who was married to one of the attendees. She went on for entirely too long about some academic research she was involved in. I expect it was for several reasons: 1) a way to call attention to the fact that she was involved in something important; and 2) a way to keep occupied, because, truly, she was bored out of her skull. Somehow, I doubt very much that her husband trailed her to any academic conferences on her work. Then there were the "Who are you?" looks I would get at the ubiquitous Saturday night banquet, when wives and girlfriends would join us. There I was, no man in tow, actually taking part in the training and talking with their boyfriends and husbands as colleagues. The looks sometimes regarded me as a threat, or dismissed me as a woman who had nothing better to do than to be involved in this silly stuff, which they tolerated in their men, but considered a distraction from precious family time.

At the gasshuku, the women ranged from relative beginners to teachers in other art forms with varying degrees of experience in this one. The youngest person was about 14 and the eldest in her 80's someplace. Some had intimate connections to the male attendees (daughter, wife, girlfriend) but others did not. In a typical setup for budo, we were in a mixed group - young, old, different sizes, male and female, and we rotated down the line, trying the various kata with people of all sizes and relative strengths. It has been said before, but weapons are great equalizers. There was no nonsense of a tiny person somehow taking out someone large enough to simply pick her up and carry her over his shoulder. A sharp-bladed sickle, or a sword, in the hands of a small person forces the respect of her partner no matter his size.

It was not all awesomeness, however. One student with more experience suggested to a male participant a way in which he could improve his kamae and was rebuffed. She immediately retreated to a "Well, I could be wrong, I suppose, but that's how I do it," position. I have watched this young woman at events like this, since she started. Unlike myself, who has limited access to qualified teachers, she has had the benefit of twice-weekly training with well-qualified people. She has developed enviable abilities in a three-year time period. I had to step in. "Don't say that," I said. "I usually say, 'I do it like this, and no one has yet told me I'm wrong.'" (Translation: I'm right.) Women are bringing up the number of participants at last. It's really important, now that we are here, that we don't sell ourselves short.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The weekend that was

[Readers who (may?) have been looking for regular posts on this site have probably been disappointed lately, as have I, actually. Too much stuff happening. I have also been experiencing the most annoying of episodes for a writer - I think of things to say when I am no where near a keyboard or other means of writing; and when I do have the means, I discover I don't really have much to say after all!]

In the original sense of what a blog is (that is, a journal of some sort, not a commercial enterprise, or something I hope will turn into a book some day) I am pondering the meaning of a get-together with some fellow budoka that was held a few weeks ago. In true journal fashion, I am writing down thoughts in an effort to wrap my head around that weekend's events, and my reaction to them.

Even though, in a journal, background is not necessary, I will include a few sentences for context, in the event that, at some point, I don't remember what the hell I was writing about. One of my budo friends, whom I've known for about 20 years, invited me and one of my students to a weekend of training, along with about a dozen or so of his closest budo friends. I was reluctant to accept the invitation, and did not even confirm my acceptance until about a month out. I suppose the first thing to consider is my initial ambivalence.

I should remind myself that I have spent many hours training with this friend, both in the US and Japan. After getting kicked out of my old group, he was one of the few people who believed my version of events. More than any single individual, he has been instrumental in helping me rebuild my practice, starting at a time when I was mentally strung out and considering quitting altogether. In that sense, I certainly owe him a debt I can probably never repay.

But that was not the reason for my reluctance. Here's where I insult a whole group of budo practitioners: The most enthusiastic acceptances for the weekend event came from aikidoka. I certainly have no problem with aikido in itself, and I have met some very good practitioners. Nope (or at least, not really). My problem was that aikidoka enjoy a practice that involves a lot of falling down. I study weapons systems that involve very little of that type of movement; and, being of a "certain age" and with what my chiropractor calls "an interesting back," I decided that this was not the weekend for me. So, not long after the happily affirmative chorus ensued, I asked my friend if we would indeed be doing any of the sort of practice I might find useful or fun.

"I'm sure we'll do something," he (kind of) assured me. So, I am supposed to spend hundreds of dollars on an air ticket for what might well only be a weekend-long party. In spite of my affection for my friend, and for some of the colleagues who were already on board with the event, that was not a good answer. Instead of an opportunity to work on some new material with people who knew better than me, I would instead stand next to the mat and watch other people throw each other around. Call me grumpy, or old, or both if you like. If it had been a short car ride away, I may well have thought better of the idea; instead, I was reluctant.

My ambivalence was complicated by the fact that a separate invitation was given to one of my students. I like this person - he has been the one guy I have worked with lately who has put his budo money where his mouth is. And I'm not ashamed to say that sometimes an energetic, young newbie can kick a teacher's butt up a few notches. I took him around the first time, but after that, his excitement was so contagious with my friend and his colleagues that he has earned invitations all on his own ever since. He is so well-liked by my friend that one confused individual once asked me whose student he actually was. The fact that he accepted his invitation immediately, and with enthusiasm roughly on a par with that of the aikidoka, made me wonder a little as well.

So many weird things.

Then there were the women. There were four on the first day, and five on the second. Needless to say (or at least it should be needless), I am a great supporter of women in budo, and having one-third of the attendees being female was a very cool thing. I have spent a certain amount of time writing in this space, as well as in other spaces, about the dearth of women in US budo circles. Every now and then, I come across an article touting the meritocracy of budo practice in the US only to think, "What about the rest of us?"

However, one of the downsides of the small number of US women practitioners is an innate, and IMO erroneous sense of competition among women budoka here. We are so used to being "the only woman" that we almost resent the presence of others as an intrusion (as in, there can only be one queen). Add to that the sensibility that we feel like we have to constantly prove that we deserve a place at the table and what you get is a weekend-long exercise in one-upmanship. I find it interesting that, in my experience, if women budoka are together working on something, there is usually a great spirit of cooperation; however, introduce guys into the mix and the atmosphere changes. (In fact, I don't think the behavior is exclusive to budo.) Not everyone reacted the same way, but it was enough. I have certainly done my share of story-telling, but one person so dominated the conversation throughout the entire weekend that there was nothing to do but retreat. My student suggested that such dominance was perhaps what was needed to be a successful onna budoka. If that is the case, I am doomed to obscurity, and with pleasure.

As to the curriculum, I was mostly right. Except for a session I taught myself (which I did not know I was supposed to teach until a short time beforehand), there was no formal weapons training. By insisting among some of my colleagues, we did manage a little informal work, for which I was very grateful.

As to socializing, I can sum things up in one story: I was sitting with a group of people, none of whom lived in NYC, who began to relate where they were when the World Trade Center attacks took place. Person after person remembered where they were and what they were doing, and when it got to the point where I might tell a relevant story, someone started a different topic. I live in NYC. My husband nearly got caught in the collapse of one of the towers. But never mind, moving on.

My student had a boffo time. *Everyone* loved him. One person extolled his loyalty to me (it's not that I didn't agree; it's that I know that loyalty is one of those things that shifts with life forces). Another colleague chided me for not showing him more affection (I am not affectionate with students. It's difficult enough for me, emotionally, just to teach them). After feeling a little like the skunk at the garden party, I realized that I was the only person to come from out of town who even had a student willing to do likewise, so I took some consolation in that.

All the attendees have expressed their enjoyment of the weekend. They got to try different styles of empty-hand, and even some real-world application of technique. But I am still (as you can see) sorting out my feelings on the event. I care about my friend, and some of the others, and I wonder if I should publish this post. I don't want any hurt feelings. More importantly, I am wrestling with wanting to be included, though at the same time, I keep thinking I don't belong. I wonder what I should do about next year if the event takes place again. Insist on some more relevant training, or decline to take part? I hate making time and expense a factor in whether I think going to a party is worthwhile, but for me, for now, it is. My friend has written about how happy he is (and I'm glad). He expressed how pleased he was that there was so little "ego" on display. True for him, maybe, but I am still grappling (empty-handed even) with mine.


Thursday, May 26, 2016

For the love of Wednesdays

Last night, I made it to NJ dojo, after 1/2 hour of dodging trucks, cars, and heedless pedestrians. My commute always seems to include at least a few drivers who want to kill themselves and take as many people as possible with them. I hate this type of driving, whether on Route 80 or dodging everyone and everything on Broadway on the way to the George Washington Bridge. Add to that the kind of week I have had so far, and it's small wonder I got to the dojo parking lot and heaved a big sigh of relief.

However, within moments of being inside, where the last few minutes of the combination Daito ryu and Shinri classes were taking place, I was laughing as loudly as anyone as I went to change my clothes. I'm not sure how to explain what was so funny in a way that readers would get it - let's just say that one partner attempted a spectacular throw, an errant foot landed off target, and two people ended up curled into fetal positions on the floor, followed first by giggling, then by fits of laughter by them, and then by everyone in the room.

Clearly a mistake had been made. "Do that again," I said, "I missed it the first time."

The two men tried again, made the same mistake, and landed on the floor again in the same positions, followed by more laughter. This is what serious practice among adults can look like here.

And no one is doubting that seriousness. As I've written here before, the instructor makes the potential danger of the techniques apparent over and over again, and last night was no exception. But for the moment, the seriousness gave way to peals of laughter among students who trust both the instructor and each other. By the end of the practice, the problem still had not been totally resolved, but enough progress had been made that both students and instructor felt slightly more reassured that somehow, someday, they would learn the throw.

Of necessity, the iaido practice is generally both more formal and more dignified. As dangerous as Daito techniques and Shinri throws can be, swords are dangerous objects by their nature. You don't need another person to cause injury; you can get hurt all by yourself. And yet, a certain amount of good humor and wit often accompanies this practice too. For an hour and a half, until 10:30pm, we worked together through a set of kata, trading ideas, theories and analogies to pull the best possible technique out of each other. It was the NJ instructor's class, but sometimes I was able to contribute a thought or analogy that helped out the others. We have worked on this set of kata for awhile, but, typically for iaido, there is always some other principle, some other small detail that hadn't come up before, to add to the mix.

I have tried to get some of my NYC students to come to NJ. Nothing doing. New JERSEY? No way. But what's not to like? We stay late. I get home later. Sometimes I can't sleep once I do get home, tired as I am, my head filled with ideas - for training, for teaching, for DOING. Getting up the next morning, faced with work and a schlep to my other dojo and another late night, is a bear. My spouse thinks I'm crazy, though, at the same time, he's become resigned. I think he's become resigned to Wednesday night madness because it's obvious I have so much fun (at least, I hope that's what he thinks). I go to my Thursday practice and I often bring relevant ideas to my NYC students that were forged off the highway, in a low-ceilinged TKD space, in suburbia.

By Friday, I'm a zombie. Training three nights in a row is exhausting. I'm crazy, yes (I must be). But it's worth it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Second class Budoka, or, just because I'm nice doesn't mean I'm weak

Been awhile. Too many other commitments (including at least one other blog I write for under my "real" name). Plus another (self-financed) night of okeiko each week.

A couple of weeks ago I dumped a student. Under the circumstances, it was an easy call. The person was very happy to claim me as a teacher in the publicity for his commercial karate-and-whatever-else-I-can-claim dojo, but he never came to okeiko unless it suited his ultra-busy schedule. This, in itself is no reason to burn a bridge, but he was publicizing himself as a teacher of jodo, which he was presumably studying with me. The thing is, I teach that class as a workshop. While I have been studying jodo off and on (lately, over the past four years - on), I do not have formal rank. I have permission from my teachers to teach what I know; but it would be the height of hubris for me to call myself a teacher of the art form, which would require a teaching license. The subtlety of actually being qualified was lost on this particular person. Eventually, he pushed a little too far, and I told him (in a nice way) to fuck off.

As one of my colleagues to whom I related the story put it - "why is this always happening to you?"

I would dispute the "always" part, but yeah, as readers of this space know, there have been times when I have had to dismiss someone whom I thought was unsuitable. I have written at other times that koryu budo is not for everyone, though, at the same time, it is for anyone who is interested in sincerely pursuing it. Unlike some of my colleagues, I do not believe that studying koryu can transform someone into a better person (whatever that is). I believe, as in this case, and in some others, that koryu practice can be revealing of character instead. Students may be transformed through their own efforts, not because of something in the nature of koryu itself. As someone who works with a sponsor, I am in the unenviable position of not being able to screen newbies as much as I would like; though, after the last dustup, some guidelines for prospective students have been put in place (or I would have walked out on the sponsor, and he knew it).

But back to the main point. The dumpee (I like that) earned my displeasure by going behind my back to register for a ranking test with a national organization. Some of the organizers he contacted were people I had known in the past. I am fairly certain they thought it was strange for one of my students to appear out of the blue and schedule his own ranking test. When I confronted him, my "student" said he simply "forgot" to tell me (not getting that he should have *asked* me, if in fact I was his teacher, and that teachers normally recommend students for rank). I called bullshit on his poor memory too.

Now, take a moment to think about this: if I were a man, do we think any of this would have happened in this way? Do we really think a student would simply (a) act on his own and (b) not bother to involve me in the discussion? Really? And this is not the first time a (male) student went around/over my head/behind my back/otherwise used my expertise and connections to pursue his own agenda.

Why is this [always] happening to me?

I find myself in pretty good company, actually. My teacher (a guy) was used in a similar way by an erstwhile student at least once. He was also a pretty nice man, unless riled. Once riled, you really wanted to get as far away from his temper as possible. I can say for myself that I am also pretty slow to anger, but, similarly, once pushed, no fun to be around.

Which is what happened. The good thing about being slow to anger is that once you get there, it feels really justified. A swirl of indignant emails and angry phone calls later, I had gotten rid of the problem person for good. To top it all off, I emailed my sponsor and told him after all was settled that the guy was no longer to attend my okeiko. No more arguments; no more he-seemed-like-a- nice-guy-to-me crap. I decided, and he had to accept the decision.

But yes, that just-because-I'm-nice-doesn't-mean-I'm-weak thing. As I said, it doesn't just apply to women, though in this case the problem student was good-looking, and I expect I am the first woman in his life who simply said No. No, I'm not good with the idea that you went behind my back. No, you can no longer claim me as your "teacher." No, I will not come to your dojo because you are "too busy" to come to my okeiko. No.

When I was an adjunct professor, students who misinterpreted my enthusiasm for my subject and willingness to help people with finding resources for the class, etc., were (to a man, I may say) nonplussed when I gave my first exam. My exams reflected whatever material I said would be covered, and they were difficult. Not impossible, and bearable for those who actually studied. But there was always a handful who figured differently, and paid the price for it (I also had a system for tamping down cheating, in case anyone was so foolish as to try). These students were not only shocked that the "nice" teacher had given them a difficult test, they were floored when their appeals for a better grade were brushed aside. After all, I would explain, the students who had actually studied had done so much better - it wasn't exactly fair to them if I arbitrarily passed the lazy ones, now was it? Some people subsequently pulled their act together and improved, and some did not. C'est la vie.

But the problem remains: my old sempai, as he was kicking me out of my old dojo, told me I was the most "ungenerous" teacher he had ever met; meaning, in effect, that I was not "nice" (I was more overtly hardassed then). Women, I discovered, are supposed to be "nice," while men who are hardassed disciplinarians command respect; at least that is how it seems to work in U.S. dojo. As "nice" women, we are supposed to be helpful. We are not supposed to mind if our expertise is exploited to serve our students' self-interests. I have decided that, like the Buddha, I can take the middle path. I can be nice, and I can also be a hardass.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

A dojo is not a class - part II

A number of years ago, I was going through a rather tough time emotionally. I asked a friend of mine, a Buddhist monk, if he could recommend some sutras I could read to calm my mind. He sent three. I printed them out and lugged them around with me for months, reading through them practically every day. I was not looking for comfort, I was looking for a sense of perspective.

I don't remember everything in the sutras. I do remember one portion read something similar to what your mom might have told you: hang around with the wrong crowd and you will begin to identify with it (or be identified with it). Another part that stuck with me was: people will attribute their own motivations to you.

That's a simple thought, right? And yet, when you think about it, you begin to see it everywhere in interacting with people. With regard to the situation that had upset me, years ago now, it was certainly true that I was thinking overall about the welfare of the group I was involved in. The person who ultimately managed to kick me out was thinking of himself as the font of all wisdom. He had decided that I must be thinking the same thing, and there could only be ONE font. Etc. (That's not to say I had not thought of myself as a source of relevant information for these people, but it was not my only, nor my primary interest.)

I am bringing this up because, as I said, people will attribute their motivations to you. After a dry, hot August, with my sponsor complaining about low class attendance impacting his bottom line, I thought of a simple way to kill several birds with one stone. Without going into detail, the idea would have increased income to the sponsor, allowed him to perhaps come to okeiko more often, and give me the autonomy I think a dojo should have, as opposed to a class. It would also allow me to build up a small amount of cash so I could invite teachers for seminars without having to front money I could only hope to recoup though fees. Win-win-win-win. The only caveat was that I would have to pay less to the sponsor than he might have gotten from a total stranger, but it seemed like a reasonable enough deal - it was more than he had been getting, and I was his teacher, right? He would be able to continue to attend okeiko for free, which was worth quite a bit. I was certain enough that this scheme would work that I ran it past some of the students, vaguely and confidentially, since implementing such an idea would impact how they paid for classes. Everyone agreed it was a good idea. I decided to run it past the sponsor.

Except that I had barely seen him over the past two months. I wrote several times that I wanted to talk to him (without committing any specifics to print). Eventually, inevitably, he heard a rumor that I was thinking of breaking my relationship with him (and I was; but only as a sponsor, not as a student). I received a hastily and badly-written email stating that IF I wanted to pay rent, I could pay the same as any other client (an amount that is actually overpriced for the space and location, given everything).

Let's just say the note reflected a boss-contractor relationship, rather than a student-teacher relationship. As to the motivation he was attributing to me, I'm not sure. I can state that my interest was for the welfare of the group, something that I thought would also be of interest to him as a student. In other words, I thought I could attribute my motivation to him. Unfortunately, though it isn't written that way, the sutra works both ways, and I was wrong.

One of my old, old budo colleagues once told me not to teach at other people's dojo. I don't entirely disagree. It's true I can't claim any students there as my own, but, currently, at least, people who invite me seem very grateful for what I can offer, and - they pay me. As much as I can use the extra money myself, I have decided to put my ill-gotten gains towards rent for a space that I could consider the dojo's "forever home." It may be small and only once a week or so, but it would be all ours.