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Home > Columns > "The Mirror" > June, 2006 - Sempai Fi

Sempai Fi by "The Mirror"

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This article was written by A. J. Garcia.

June 2006:

It's been five years, almost to the day, since we first met at a Saturday class. He was second kyu then, not so far along that his at-times exuberant, puppy-like enthusiasm for the art had developed a patina of dignity, yet sufficiently jaded from practice to know that new folks often don't stick around long. I'm sure he didn't think I would. He'd started aikido in this style as a mid-40-something and never stopped, in spite of aches and pains associated with such an "advanced" age. I'd taken a break of many years between my first practice in another style and the day I stepped back on the mat to begin learning this one; during the hiatus, my body had had its share of extreme challenges to overcome...he stared doubtfully at me the first day and asked, "Are you sure you're going be able to do this?"

"Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I intend to!" was my reply. I had a wonderful first class, tossing him around.

After that, we were like wood and sandpaper most of the time. He became a nemesis, a burr under my saddle: often moody, sometimes abrupt...and I reacted negatively at times to what I considered his super-pickiness and cynicism. A particular sore point was that he publically and privately opined that with my body limits, I shouldn't even practice aikido. I told him our sensei had accepted me as a student, I'd signed the liability waiver and was willing to take the risk--and then I pushed my sempai's envelope every chance I got just because he had the nerve to doubt me. He wasn't a paragon of patience, and I know I was exasperating at times. Yet, for some unknown reason he hung in there with me and helped me grow, and a lot of sawdust fell on the mat in the process.

He never really understood why I liked to go to seminars elsewhere, in other styles. He had the ability to totally immerse himself in one style alone, and was content with that. I wanted to see the bigger picture, sample the smorgasbord, get a feel for the variety of forms that were out there, meet other like-minded folks, test what I was learning against a larger community, and maybe pick up a few new ideas. I'm sure he considered me an aikido dillitante.

We both enjoyed weapons work--my sempai was just more focused on weapons as aikido teaching tools (versus weapons) than I was. That made him not very martially-minded, in my opinion; his opinion was that I had the wrong focus, and did weapons with far too much lethal intent. He did his best to temper that instinct in me, with limited success. While his influence wore off a few of my rough edges, we were definetly on different paths to the top of the mountain. He did better at refining my aikido technique: "You can't muscle me!" was a phrase I heard over and over, as he rolled his eyes in mock forbearance while I searched to find the opening that would get him to finally move. Over the years, he increased the challenge level, and I learned to feel the subtlest of nuances, and move in the split-seconds when uke couldn't stop me from directing him to the mat.

Our learning styles often didn't mesh. He could learn a technique by mirroring the instructor, and take it home to practice solo over and over until he got it perfect, something I struggled with. I needed hands-on practice with a partner to imprint technique into body memory, and I needed to imitate the instructor's motions while facing in the same direction. Sometimes the only way to teach me a technique was to use a weapon to illustrate the movement. It's to his credit that my sempai figured that out and was willing to adapt his instruction so I could learn better.

I had a lot of personal issues to deal with during the half-decade we practiced together, and I didn't always manage to leave them off the mat. He understood on some level, and was more tolerant of my moods that I was of his. In his own way he encouraged me not to bash myself when I faltered or failed. Over time, our relationship changed to one of greater acceptance of each other's quirks and limits. It took me a couple of years to figure out that under his often-stern, at times annoyingly parental, demeanor some genuine kindness lurked.

One thing that never changed in all that time was how much fun he could be to work with.

Sadly, we humans often wallow in a comfortable delusion that some things will never change, when all around us is daily evidence that the only constant IS change. Treasure the opportunities you have to practice with a knowlegeable partner, because you never know how long those opportunities will last. One day I got an email from another dojo member, mentioning a rumor that my sempai was departing. The rumor turned out to be true: he had accepted a job offer in another state. The dojo planned a party, wished him well, and gave him an appropriate Aikido-themed going-away gift.

Then a final class, held, like the first one, on a Saturday...we two got to play together some on the mat, which seemed a fitting goodbye. At one point during class I was practicing with a fairly new student and found myself doing the same things my sempai once did with me: holding gently but firmly, not allowing myself to be muscled, not moving until nage did the technique right...and I realized that the investment of time and patience he'd made in me did finally bear fruit. Glancing up, I saw him give a curt nod...of approval?

While not the largest influence on my aikido, he was a far more significant one than I ever imagined he would be when I first met him five years ago. To his credit, he faithfully, patiently, and generously shared the gift of aikido with anyone who desired to learn the art, even if they lacked grace, and, at times, gratitude.

Safe journey, Sempai, and thank you.

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