Monday, January 9, 2017 was the first day of class at the college. This is a physical education class that people take for credit. It’s rare for students to take both quarters that are offered, even more rare for a student to audit in order to attend beyond the two quarters. How I became involved is a long story – and as of last Spring I’m the highest-ranked student and therefore have some responsibilities. It’s a rewarding experience to help introduce young people to Karate, and I always hope that they remember the class fondly and take up the art again after they’re done with our little class.
I’ve decided to do something a little different this week on this blog. I wrote down how I anticipate the first class will go. Then I wrote about what actually happened.
Here’s my anticipation, written Sunday night (1/8/16)…
I’ll tear myself away from the busy front desk at the office, reluctant to leave my co-workers to deal with the crowd of students who always come in during the first day of class. But my involvement in the Karate program predates my job and one of the conditions I laid down when I was hired was that I can flex my hours in order to continue to be involved in the Karate class. I’m anticipating seeing at least two of our International students in the dojo. I don’t recall what they look like, but I’ve memorized their names. I’ll surreptitiously peek when Sensei does the roll call.
I’ll stop at my car to retrieve my gear then hustle to the locker room. My transformation from office professional to karateka begins with switching my bifocals to contact lenses and ends with tying my belt and shoving my feet into flip-flops. I’ll experience some sadness when I remember students who I won’t be seeing this quarter.
It’s quite likely after I bow into the dojo that someone will ask me for a hair band or a Band-Aid. That always seems to happen the first day of every quarter. I always keep things like that on hand for those who need them. I’ll put my gear down in a corner by Sensei’s bag, shuck my flip-flops, then help Sensei put tournament mats down on the floor. I’ll explain how the mats are supposed to be laid out to eager students who are anxious to help. Once this task is done, I’ll ask people to remove their shoes and socks. I’ll probably do that two or three times before class starts. If I’m lucky, I might get to practice kata. I think I’ll do Rohai Shodan – an old lady balancing on one leg (sagi ashi dachi) is kinda impressive.
Sensei will call us to line up, and I will take my place in the Sempai position. I will remember three people who used to be in that position. I will do my part in the opening ceremony, pausing so that Sensei can explain each step. Then Sensei will ask me to lead warm-ups.
I like to be cheerful and human. I’ll introduce myself briefly, and probably make a wise crack like, “You guys are lucky – I just got over the worst flu ever, this is my first workout since before Christmas, so I’ll go easy on you today.” I will take maybe five or ten minutes to hit major muscle groups. There’s no need to kill myself or them. We get only an hour anyway, so it’s best not to spend too much time warming up.
I’m anticipating three or four students taking the second quarter. I don’t remember which of them tested for their orange belt last quarter. No matter – the ones who didn’t test can still learn their new kata (forms). Sensei will tell me what he wants me to cover, and he will take the newbies – typically we have about eighteen or so each quarter. I get to teach the second-quarter students on the first day.
I think Sensei will want me to review kihon (basic movements). I like to hammer in the Japanese terms, so I’ll be sure to incorporate that as we go. Given the tiny group I’ll have, there will be plenty of opportunity for me to give feedback and advice to refine their movements. Sensei might tell me to teach them their new kata. They will have two to learn, but one is just a variation on what they’ve already learned. I will be running out of time after we go through the first kata, so I won’t be able to do more than briefly introduce the other kata. I’m really hoping, though, that Sensei will tell me to do kumite (sparring) with them instead of kata. I’d love to do some drills that involve the defenders stepping away at an angle to set up for a counter-attack. All too often we drill in straight lines, which means defenders go straight backward. This results in students thinking stepping backward is their only option. I want to expand their horizons at this stage.
After class I’ll help tear down and stack the mats. If there isn’t another class or sports team coming into the room, I’ll have a little bit of time to practice kata, and Sensei might stay to help me, or at the very least he might practice his own kata. It’s always a treat for me to watch him, as he’s vastly better than me. Watching him reminds me of what I need to be working towards.
Now let’s see what really happened…
When I bowed into the dojo, Sensei had not put out the tournament mats. Blocking the door to the equipment room was a cart full of hand weights. Sensei had stacked foam shields against the wall. I bowed to Sensei and asked about mats, and he said we wouldn’t be using them today. I filled out the waiver form that I have to fill out every quarter, then directed new students to remove shoes and socks. Much to my surprise, I only had to ask students to do this once.
I had loads of time to practice kata while students filled out waiver forms. I found out the really bad flu I’d had over the winter break had really taken a toll on me. I had a lingering cough and got winded easily. Still, movement felt good after seventeen days of not working out. My balance wasn’t what it should be and I wondered if my inner ear was affected by the medicine. I was relieved to find I hadn’t forgotten my kata. The new students who had already filled out their waiver forms watched. I didn’t care about messing up – I found that my need to practice outweighed my desire to look cool. Besides, it’s good for students to see that I’m not perfect and it’s good for them to watch me patiently work through something that I just flubbed. At one point Sensei gave me a refinement to work on.
Sensei finally called the class to gather around. He talked about what to expect and introduced me. This was definitely a departure from the normal first day. Usually he has this talk just with the new people and I get to teach the returners. I spotted an acquaintance in the crowd. I was not expecting her there at all and I was very happy to see her. She is a black belt from Japan, she’s my co-worker (in another division of the office I work for), and she and I have been training together at another dojo. I recognized a couple of returning students, and was just a little dismayed that there weren’t more. We lined up properly and Sensei walked us through the opening ceremony. He led so that he could explain everything, so I didn’t get to do my bit until the closing ceremony.
After he led a brief, light warm-up, Sensei had us students partner up and I paired up with a returning student. We grabbed the big foam shields. Sensei demonstrated how to hold the shield and I was flattered when he had me kick it in order to demonstrate exactly why one needs to hold the shield properly. WHAM! I always feel so powerful when I can land a good kick on something solid. But we weren’t going to do kicks. Instead, Sensei walked the class through elbow strikes. I’d never done elbow strikes outside of kata, so this was a treat for me. I found myself thinking about my hikite (the hand that pulls back to “chamber” while the other strikes) and about my hips. Sensei came over at one point to tell me to not “pose” at the end of the technique – strike and pull back immediately. “You’re not a beginner anymore,” he said. Well, technically I am and I will most likely still feel like I’m pretty wet behind the ears when I finally do get to tie on a black belt. That said, Sensei’s point was that I need to think beyond the drills in order to build better habits. It’s a recurring theme with me, and he’s not the only Sensei who’s been saying it to me. I guess I’d better stop being afraid to build on the drills.
Sensei wanted all of us to remember how much power we were able to generate and said we’d re-visit elbow strikes the last class day so that we could see our progress. Later, at home, I thought about my hikite and my hips, and I realized I still had a tendency to “muscle through” the technique. My best strike that Sensei saw and commented on was one in which I felt loose until the moment of impact. I have some work to do.
We ended class with the hand weights. Sensei walked the class through the motions of punching, and we did this wit the weights. I found out I was still fairly strong even after half a month of illness. Putting the weights aside and punching for real felt great, especially when we added kiai. Unfortunately, we were running over time at that point.
Sensei had us go through the closing ceremony a little more like how we usually do it on the first class day, so I got to do my bit. I helped put equipment away and he asked my opinion. I was flattered he asked. I told him I thought that jumping right into bag work was a great way to start the quarter. I observed that we seem to lose a lot of students after the first day, and speculated we’d be keeping more this time around. I asked a couple of questions of my own. College Sensei has been asking my opinion more in the last few months – it’s pretty obvious he’s starting to train me as someone who will become a Sensei herself. I’m honored that he’s prompting me to think about the dojo as a whole.
One more pleasant surprise was in store for me as Sensei and I went to grab our gear bags. One more of the college’s International students asked Sensei if he could join the class. This student has been studying at the college for awhile now, so I knew who he was – and he’d been in to the office earlier that morning. I love seeing the realization dawn on a student’s face when he or she recognizes me, and this time Sensei got to see it too. Yes, Linda Lee Danvers is Supergirl and vice versa. I checked that the student knew how to add classes online, then went off to practice kata while he chatted with Sensei. Finally it was indeed time to clear out. This quarter we will have the room for twenty minutes after class, so that will be sufficient to take up tournament mats and maybe sneak a little kata practice in.
When I got home I found my elbows were sore, red, and had little patches of skin rubbed off. I’ll heal. I had to drive the elbow strikes into the “body” rather than clip the chin as I’ve practiced in kata, so I’ve learned a valuable technique for when the opponent is quite close. Given the force I’m able to generate, this technique could disable or at least drive off an attacker. The lingering ache in my elbows actually felt good in a way. The pain is a reminder that I’m grabbing life by the horns and holding on for the wild ride.
OK, so I learned technique and got high from the endorphins (which helps reinforce the lesson that this Karate stuff is lots of fun). But there are deeper lessons learned from this first day of class. This is my eighth quarter of being involved with the college’s Karate class, and the first day has always been pretty much the same every time (except lately I’ve been in the role of senior student). I learned that there is always room for improvement. It’s perfectly OK to experiment, to try something different with a class. College Sensei outranks me vastly and has decades more experience in karate and in teaching karate to others, but he still seeks to be better. His students, including me, will reap the benefit of his willingness to improve. College Sensei knows my ambitions – he knows I want to teach. He is setting an example for me. I’m very glad to have these lessons.