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Home > Columns > "The Mirror" > April, 2005 - Sempai/Kohai

Sempai/Kohai by "The Mirror"

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This column was written by Susan Dalton.

As we'd pull up to the dojo, the first check would be for motorcycles. Just because we'd see one parked beside the door didn't mean we were home free. The guy living in the apartment beside the dojo also rode a silver Suzuki. Inside the dojo came the definitive check at the shoe rack. Really, only one of us would check; Ryan would already be out of his seat belt and running, already looking for those size 13 Adidas before I could get my door open. If they were there, he'd yank off his own shoes and do a quick bow to the kamiza so he could run across the mat. Then he'd race back to the dressing room to greet his favorite brown belt, Jason Slade.

Ryan chose Jason as uke for his first test. How tall are six year olds? Three feet? If Ryan was three feet tall, he looked even smaller beside six-foot-five-inch Jason. "Ha," I heard someone say. "The little guy has heart. He chose the biggest guy in the dojo." But Ryan didn't choose Jason because of the size of his own heart; he chose him because of the size of Jason's.

Not everyone likes to work with kids or beginners, but in our dojo, everyone is supposed to work with everyone. Open hands, open mind, open heart. Relationships are every bit as important as techniques; no, more important. Still, some people accept that edict more willingly than others. Jason's the laid-back, patient guy everyone scrambles to work with. If you're teaching a class, you can count on him to partner with the new person. He's the sempai who'll slide over to show hand positions for the wrist exercises. He'll stay after class or come in on weekends to help with rolls or tai sabaki, to answer questions and assuage fears. And he has a way of making beginners feel that they're doing him the favor by staying after class.

"Be sure to work with me tonight," he'd tell Ryan. "I'm missing my little brothers."

Another rule in our dojo is only aikido on the mat. This rule Ryan and Jason stretched to the breaking point, but they'd find a way to incorporate aikido into their horseplay. Before class, Jason would pick Ryan up and carry him around by his belt. During class, Jason would call Ryan as an uke and do crashing break falls out of Ryan's throws. (Certainly, Ryan never had a problem getting his center under Jason's.) After class, they and whoever wanted to join them worked on whatever techniques Sensei had taught that night.

When I began aikido, Jason welcomed me just as openly. I was fearful and stubborn, particularly untalented. I didn't like people putting their hands on me, but I always felt safe working with Jason. He pushed me past my perceived limits, but not too far or too fast. He's an easy guy to trust.

Jason stayed in the dojo through college, long enough to become ikkyu, but then he graduated and started his career as a chef, a job that demanded his evenings. He left the dojo for seven years. When he returned, our teachers had moved away and Jay Sensei, our senior student, had become chief instructor. Several of Jason's kohai had achieved dan ranks, including me, and I was now dojo cho. Ryan, sixteen, had just failed his black belt test. Night after night we stayed after class -- Jay Sensei, Jason, Ryan, and me, Jay Sensei instructing and Jason taking ukemi. Somewhere in this process Ryan's loose-limbed, soft, floppy techniques developed presence and intent. He stopped backing out and had a fantastic second test with Jason as uke. Six months later our dojo saw another spectacular test when Jason tested for shodan with Ryan as uke.

Jason and Ryan decided they wanted to start a class on Saturday mornings, and they asked Sensei if they could co-teach. I enjoyed attending their class but often found myself lecturing on the ride home, asking Ryan to act more like a sensei, less like a lackadaisical teen. After a few discussions, I agreed (as mom rather than as dojo cho) to be a student when in their class, and Ryan agreed to stop being so informal and to enforce the etiquette and strict sempai/kohai relationships we adhere to in our dojo. In the almost two years they taught together, Jason managed the seemingly impossible task of being kohai and helping a seventeen-year-old shodan mature into a sensei.

This past summer, after a day of shopping for linens and incidentals Ryan would need to take to college, I rushed into the dojo, to be greeted with stunning news. Jason had taken a job at a prep school in Virginia, and he and Ryan would be leaving the dojo within weeks of each other. Saturday morning classes wouldn't be the problem -- we had a new shodan who'd do a beautiful job-- but Ryan's absence was already going to leave an empty space in our house; losing Ryan and Jason together meant a huge hole in the dojo.

Several weeks after Jason arrived at Woodberry Forest, he sent an email. What did we think about his starting an aikido club at the school? Our shihan gave his okay, and Jason began classes with twelve enthusiastic teenagers. His dojo would be our first offshoot since our teachers gave us the dojo. Already I could see Ryan and Jason's influence on their students from Saturday morning classes, and I felt as Jay Sensei did, that Jason was ready. Their students did them proud. Sometimes I'd see Ryan's amazing hang-time in their most faithful student Burt's ukemi, but usually I saw Jason. Burt's crashing falls, solid presence, and impeccable dojo etiquette seemed to channel Jason back into the dojo.

One Wednesday night I'd been asked to fill in for the instructor and was leading stretching exercises, happy to have Ryan home for break and in the dojo, when I heard the door open. In front of me I saw big smiles on the faces of the kyu ranks, even stoical Burt. Beside me, Ryan, who had a view of the entrance area, was grinning too. I wasn't sure who had come in the door, but I knew the class was happy, whoever had. I stopped warm-ups to welcome Jason onto the mat.

Sometime in May Jason will lead his students into the dojo for their first test. I remember bringing the kids' class I taught in for their first test. From my unfamiliar spot up front with the instructors, I felt a little hop in my center as my students rolled over the stick, felt it settle into tai sabaki with them, and breathed through their ikkyo. Jason will probably feel the same mixture of pride and responsibility as he watches his students. And as his kohai and then sempai, and as a friend who misses his presence in our dojo, I'll watch him watch.

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