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Home > Columns > "The Mirror" > October, 2006 - Beyond the Ninja Turtles

Beyond the Ninja Turtles by "The Mirror"

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This article was written by Susan Dalton.

This essay was written in 1997 and originally published in Aikido Today Magazine #61. It is reprinted here with the permission of Aikido Today Magazine.

When my son was four, he loved the Ninja Turtles. In fact, "loved" may not be a strong enough word to describe his feelings. His fascination lasted for years. While learning the truth about Santa Claus didn't disturb him at all, learning that the Ninja Turtles do not live in the sewers below the streets left him heartbroken and sobbing. "They do! I know they do!" he cried. "It says so on TV, and everything they say on TV is true."

The Ninja Turtles led us to hard lessons about reality, and they continued to influence the life of our family--more, probably, than I realize or admit. I wish I had videos of my son patiently explaining--as I rolled my eyes and complained about how the turtles always save poor, helpless, April O'Neill--"No, Mama, the turtles aren't going to save her this time. The dinosaurs are, and I'm sure they're girl dinosaurs."

The turtles also introduced us to marketing strategies aimed at children. My parents tried to buy every action figure in the Ninja Turtle set for their first grandchild, but we discovered that as soon as Ryan had all the figures, new ones appeared on the toy shelves.

While I disagree with much about the Ninja Turtles, they are in part responsible for a decision that has changed my life.

Ryan wanted to learn a martial art so that he could be more like the turtles. About the time he introduced the idea to me, a student in my English class wrote a paper about how he had transformed from a delinquent, troubled adolescent into a disciplined, focused teenager by committing himself to a martial art. I researched the various martial arts and found Aikido's philosophy most compatible with my own because it stressed nonviolence and redirecting the energy of an attack. Then, when Ryan started kindergarten and we went to the bus stop for the first time, we met a 5th grader wearing an Aikido tee-shirt. We decided to let Ryan try Aikido.

He loved the rolling, the throwing, and the falling. I liked the Sensei's gentle approach and her philosophy of blending, seeing an opponent's point-of-view, and avoiding physical confrontation.

I could see benefits almost immediately. One evening the mother of a child in Ryan's class at school called, concerned about a school bully. Ryan had said nothing about the bully. When I asked, he said, "He doesn't mess with me. He knows I take Aikido."

Several months later Ryan wrecked his skateboard on a huge hill and was able to roll out of his fall. Although he had to roll about five times to discharge the energy of the fall, he suffered only minor scrapes.

Another incident involved a friend who got angry at Ryan and wanted to fight. "Why would I fight you?" Ryan asked. "You're my friend." Ryan stayed calm and resolved the situation with words.

At a PTA meeting, when many of the children had gone outside, Ryan and another child were surrounded by older boys who wanted them to fight. Ryan tried to talk his way out of the situation, but the other boy got caught up in the moment and began throwing punches. Remaining calm, Ryan decided to throw the boy into the circle. When the other boys moved out of the way, Ryan ran through the opening and back into the building.

There came a time when all the other beginners in the kids' class quit Aikido. "Please, Mama," Ryan begged. "I'm the worse one in the class. But I know if you start coming, you'll be the worse one."

He was right. Most students roll well after several classes, but doing a back roll took me months. "Don't compare yourself with others," Ryan told me on our rides home. (We have some of our best talks on our rides home from Aikido.) "Do the best you can, and you'll keep getting better." For about eight months I continued working hard, even getting confident enough to begin attending adult classes.

Then I got pregnant with my second miracle baby and had to go on bedrest for seven months. When I returned to class a month after the birth of my daughter, my fat, terribly out-of-shape body wouldn't do anything I wanted it to do. My rolls felt more rectangular than round, and I'm sure that they looked even worse than they felt.

In our dojo, we line up by rank to roll around the room. One evening I felt particularly discouraged. "Everybody in the whole dojo gets in line in front of me because my rolls look so awful, even the people who have just started," I whined on the way home. "Yes," Ryan said. "And who lets them?"

I've had to learn much about myself. My fear of falling teaches me that trust and fear are major issues for me. I've also had to learn to take up my own space. Often women go around their partners rather than through them. I had to stop being too nice.

The spirit in our dojo is cooperative rather than competitive, and I see that I learn best in this environment. But I am not a visual learner; what many grasp after seeing one demonstration, I have to do again and again to "feel" in my body. Noticing this about myself, I have become a more compassionate and understanding teacher in English classes with students who have different learning styles.

Another important lesson I have learned is that a word of encouragement can make a huge difference. Several months after I returned to Aikido, I had a particularly difficult time in class. I felt I couldn't do anything right, and I wondered why I was even there. After class, a woman who had a much higher rank asked for my help with a few techniques she was working on. Her gentle guidance and one-on-one instruction restored my confidence, and I have never again thought of quitting.

I have also stopped criticizing myself [Did I really write that? Ha Ha] and have started to acknowledge my progress. Many 19-year-olds come into the dojo and do things in several months that I have had to work years to master (and I still mess up). But, while most of these people are gone, I am still here, working toward my black belt.

I always thought of myself as an easy-going person, but I realize I like control more that I had ever admitted. Ryan has quit Aikido for months at a time, and I see that I have to let him make this decision. He needs to be on the mat because he wants to be on the mat, not because I wish I had discovered Aikido years earlier. When I have relaxed and listened instead of badgering him to continue, he has come back to class.

Aikido seems to me a microcosm of life. The lessons I learn on the mat ripple through my classroom, my home, my relationships. "Please, Mama," Ryan says. "Do not tell me how Aikido relates to life or baseball or a math test." So, I'm trying to keep my epiphanies to myself. I'm learning to stay calm, listen to my body, and move from my center. I often find myself "up in my head" instead, but I'm catching myself up there. A few deep breaths and I usually can find my center again.

At first, it seemed strange to have people put their hands on me. I had not played many contact sports. Now I work out after class with the biggest guy in the dojo--we're training together for our next test, our black belts, and I'm actually enjoying taking big falls.

I'm not a world class athlete; I will never be one. But, when my son (who is now 12) [Now he's a few months shy of 21] had to interview a physically fit person for his health class, he chose me. I asked about his choice. "Mom," he said, "you're not skinny and you're not young. But I admire the way you're working so hard."

Thanks, turtles, for getting me into this.

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