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I remember when she had just joined the dojo, a female comrade amidst the sea of men, a bit bumbling and awkward, not unlike myself, questioning her own techniques, muttering self-criticisms through training. I remember her bowing into me, holding onto her narrow wrists, feeling out the movements of her body, seeing her potential. She showed up regularly to train and progressed fast through the ranks.
As I sit in the middle of a line-up bifurcated by the shomen, I try on this role of being Sempai like new clothes, these attempts to explain techniques for the first time to curious Kohai. I pay closer attention to where to put my hands and feet and thumbs, how to stand in correct posture for various techniques, and how to point the toes, so I can tell them correctly when they ask me. In my dojo, junior-ranking students initiate the attack, and I get used to those little things like allowing myself to be grabbed first at the start of each new techniques, or positioning us so the uke falls to the outside of the circle and not clash into those training behind us.
Sometimes I hear my Sempai's voice in my head as a self-reprimand, or hear him echoed through my own words: "Stay on the matódon't throw off." "Switch feet." "Twist your hips." Kohai tell me, "You make that look graceful," or "I wish I could do that like you," and I remember thinking that about my Sempai before me. Familiar now with the basics, I am not frantically trying to memorize what to do when Sensei demos; instead, I start to think about why we do it, how we can do it in a varied form, or how we can reverse it with another technique.
My Kohai asks me to be her uke for her 3rd-kyu test. She self-censors a lot, constantly questioning whether or not she's doing it right. Balance, timing, technique precisionóshe struggles with the things that we have once or are still seeking to get right. But there's strength in her throws, commitment in her practice. She goes at it hard every single time, never lackadaisical, and takes in mind every single criticism or comment. At first, I show her how to do it harder, hurt me more. Then she gets so good at it that I have to ask her to ease off for the sake of the achy ol' injuries. She's got one killer ikkyo pin that I'm sure she can use to immobilize any unwary street assailant.
Despite the constant self-doubt, muttering, and even humming during practice, I am surprised to see her be able to shut all that off on the day of her test. She does well, performs nobly. Afterward, new belt in hand, she comes bounding up to me, bows, and thanks me for pushing her, for teaching her. I thank her back for pushing me as well, and for teaching me lessons that I can only learn through experience, from being a Sempai.