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Home > Columns > "The Mirror" > March, 2006 - The Test

The Test by "The Mirror"

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This column was written by Susan Dalton.

Today I conduct my first test where I alone am sensei. I've taught in the dojo for years; there students have other sensei, other influences to balance my forgetfulness and less-than-martial demeanor. Here at the college I am sensei to thirteen beginning aikido students. My shodan son visited my semester-long class once, a nidan friend visited twice, and an ikkyu friend came the first day to help demonstrate, but other than those four classes and the tapes and books I've ordered for our library, my students' ideas about aikido come distilled through me. Oh please don't let me pass along my tentativeness, my fear, my iriminage butt.

Otto comes early to flip tables, stack them, and put down mats as he and I transform a geology classroom into a dojo. Already he's read most of the books I've ordered and watched the films. He writes down the Japanese terms and matches them with pictures in the books. We wash the mats before class. He'd wash them all if I didn't remind him to let the other students help. I think of Jay Sensei telling me that Tanaka Shihan said to let everyone take part, so we can socialize while we clean and so we all have a stake in the dojo.

"Back straight, knees bent--take his balance and keep yours," I yell. "Step through with that back leg. Protect your private parts." A mat full of nineteen year olds, and they don't even snicker. Instead, they scramble to do as I ask. They trust me--I'm sensei.

Marc asks to test first so he can leave. During warm-ups he sits beside the mat, out of view of the video camera. "You can test another day," I tell him. "You can come to the dojo." He wants to test now. He forward-rolls the length of the mat and back, then backward-rolls. He stops to get his breath and continues. Did he choose Matt as uke because Matt's also been through chemo? His kokyunage from static ushiro is beautiful, close. He doesn't wobble at all. He finds his center, drops it, and moves through for tenchinage--heaven and earth. When my son and I were in Japan, Tanaka Shihan taught the children's class. Usually he taught one technique--tenchinage. When he did it, it became a prayer. Marc finishes the test with heaven and earth.

I promised the class Chris would test near the beginning because he knows the Japanese. They can watch him a few times before their turn. He remembers to keep his other hand on Matt's back during iriminage instead of holding it out in a grand flourish. "Chicken wing, chicken wing," I hear the class mumbling as he does ikkyo. I wonder what Jay Sensei would think of the mnemonic devices I've given them to remember techniques. I do know he'd be proud of Chris' posture. Most of my statements about posture I quote from Jay Sensei. I can hear his voice in my head saying, "Head up. Back straight. Eyes softly focused." Or, for pins, "Knees four fists' widths apart, live toes, feet together." Chris' feet are on live toes, together.

Matt likes to bypass his arm when he rolls. Somehow he never gets hurt. So far I'm holding him back from break-falling although he loves to jump into the air and come crashing down. After every class, he helps me remember to take O Sensei's picture back to my office. He's soft and connected when he's Marc's uke, more percussive with Chris. He must notice my expression when he flings himself into uncalled-for ukemi for Chris; he reconnects and softens. I nod. I think of Paul Sensei and Avi Sensei coming in on all those Saturdays to practice rolling with me.

Christian's up next. No part of aikido came easily to him. He thought about dropping. "Aikido isn't about talent; it's about perseverance," I told him. He stayed. His rolls got less and less sideways. On his pretest he didn't remember any of the techniques. Today, on the real test, he nails them all. Aikido was just as difficult for me, but Betsy Sensei understood kinesthetic learners. She'd stand beside me and have me do just what she did. "Now, do that again three times on the same side so you have it in your body memory," she'd say. Sometimes when I talk to Christian, I hear her voice coming out of my mouth.

Lori dropped her brilliant sociology instructor persona and, bad knees and all, became a student on the mat. The last ten minutes of every class she'd hurry out to change into her professional clothes for her 3:00 lecture. Today, during the test, her students stand at the door to peek in at her. Her arm doesn't collapse at all. I've also heard Betsy Sensei's words as I've talked with Lori: "Don't compare yourself to anyone else. Go at Lori's pace. We all have strengths we bring to the mat."

Brianna back-rolled into standing the first time she tried. I wish grace were contagious. I'd like to use her as uke, but she barely hangs on. She has no idea of her power. I think of the classes John Sensei made me march around the mat saying, "This is MY mat. Welcome to MY mat." But today, Brianna's atemi rocks Tony's head back. Most of the class giggles.

Stephanie seems to melt into the mat when she rolls. She likes kokyunage from static ushiro dori, so I call it first. In the beginning there's a wide gulf between her and Otto, but then she grins and steps closer, moving right through him. When I came back from pregnancy and seven months of bed rest, I despaired at my alien body and rectangular rolls. I could do nothing right. Elizabeth Sensei stayed after class and had me practice going through, rather than around, and I decided not to quit, after all. Stephanie moves the knot on her obi through the knot on Otto's obi, just as Elizabeth Sensei had me do.

Tiny, graceful Ali enters with ferocity. She is not afraid to work with the biggest guys, especially Otto and Tony. I didn't have to tell Ali to enter. Today she's there and Otto's bouncing, and they're both grinning big. I showed her, just as Dennis Sensei showed me, that timing matters more than strength.

The other Chris played football. He's so muscled that his arms don't straighten. He's a natural uke, following wherever I take him. He likes to attack swiftly and go with the energy. I saw another side of him, too, when he stayed after the pretest with Christian. They worked another forty-five minutes, then put up the mats and replaced all the tables and chairs by themselves. I think of all those hours Billy Sensei spent with me before my sankyu test, saying that I was doing him the favor by giving him the chance to practice.

Although Alex usually chooses another uke, today he chooses Ben, his younger brother. Alex has taken most of the pirouette out of his kosate dori shihonage. He and Ben move nicely together--aikido a new variation in an old dance for them. Doing aikido with a family member can present special problems, but it has wonderful benefits, too. My son Ryan is not technically my sensei, but he's my favorite and most familiar practice partner. I wish for Alex and Ben the years of fun on the mat Ryan and I have had.

Ben and Chris like to take the pieces apart, figure out how they fit, and rearrange them. As they were practicing before the test, they put two kokyunages together into one beautifully flowing technique I had never seen before. I think of Gerald Sensei, who analyzed the physics of every movement. He said he had to pick it apart and put it back together before he could figure out what made it work. He gave me the gift of step-by- step instruction, which I've tried to give Ben. He does his new kokyunage on his test, beautifully, right in the middle of the mat.

Tony gets frustrated doing tenchinage. His uke, Chris, is whispering to him, but Tony's still stepping through with the wrong foot. "Look at me," I tell him and demonstrate again. He shakes his head and starts again before I finish. "Look at me," I say again, and he stops and looks, then does the technique. From where I watch he seems soft and strong. I remember when he muscled through every uke, resisted me with every ounce of his considerable strength. How many times, in sixteen weeks, did I tell him to slow down? Not nearly as many as Leslie Sensei told me to "mean it."

After the test, I hand out certificates. Tony pulls up a mat, carries it across the room, and puts it down by the wall. The rest of the class take their mats to him to stack. Matt brings me O Sensei's picture. It's the one Gil gave me. I finally remember to turn off the video camera. We bow one final time and my brand new sixth kyu students are gone. In iriminage every one of them bent at the knees instead of the waist.

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