Antonio's at my office waiting for me. "So far, I'm it," he says. "I don't mind being thrown around for two hours." This is the beginning of his second semester. He's done aikido for about five months. He's absolutely serious; being tossed around for two hours sounds fun to him. I love teaching nineteen-year olds.
He leaves his book bag under my desk and goes to change. "Meet you in the Commons," he says.
I feel a little silly walking from the B building in my hakama. "HI YA!" several people say. A few of them throw up karate chops.
Six mats are perfect for the space we're in, down in "the pit" with six-foot concrete walls on three sides. Culinary is setting up right above us on the concourse, and students lounge against the walls, waiting for the free food the Culture Day posters promise.
Antonio and I get the mats down and roll a time or two. A student from my composition class runs onto the mat to roll, too. His friends above us cheer. I step in front of him. "You skipped my 8:00 class and now you're on my mat?" The peanut gallery hoots. He runs off the mat and up the wheelchair ramp to stand, the wall between us.
A group gathers. We're fifteen minutes early, but the crowd is here now. It's too loud and busy to speak to the entire crowd; we'll have to do techniques. "What do you think, Antonio? Are you up for two hours and fifteen minutes?"
"Sure," he says and grabs my wrist.
I do four kosatedori shihonage omote; he does four. Then we do ura. "Yea Antonio!" a cute girl in the crowd yells. Soon more girls are yelling, "Antonio! Antonio!"
"I didn't know you were a chick magnet," I say as I throw him in kokyunage.
He lands and laughs. "I'm not. They knew me in high school as a band geek. They didn't know I could do anything else. I didn't either."
I hold out my hand and turn for an ushiro dori attack. "Now you know."
~ * ~
Daniel shows up and joins us. His gi is crisp and very white. "The master's here; the master's here," someone says.
"No, he's a white belt," someone else answers. "That old lady is the black belt."
Daniel does a high fall, landing as though I've completely devastated him. I smile at his show of loyalty. "Thanks," I say. "But follow me. Be soft. There's concrete under this mat."
Now Jennifer's here and taking off her shoes. Anna and Emily show up, Emily jonesing to roll since her class ended in December and she hasn't been on the mat since. Anna goes to change. We see Ali in the crowd. "Come on. Play," they tell her. "You can roll in your jeans." She runs down and cranks Antonio, then Daniel, in iriminage. They laugh and rub their necks.
"Soft, soft," I say.
"Sorry," she says. "I haven't done aikido since December. But I grade for green belt in judo tomorrow."
"Congratulations," the other students say. "You'll do great." "I'm glad you could come."
Now we're taking turns. One person does a technique to the line; then the next person does. While I stand in line, I answer individual questions from the crowd. It's still too loud and busy to talk to everyone at once. Time goes quickly.
"That won't really work in a fight," a young man tells me.
"Everyone on this mat besides me has taken aikido for one semester," I say. "You won't become Steven Seagal in one semester. Are you interested in aikido?" I look back at the mat. My students have settled into a rhythm. I don't have to worry. They take each of each other.
"Maybe. I'm interested in a martial art that will teach what my friend's sifu can do."
"There's a concept in aikido, probably in most martial arts: little by little. Practice and practice and little by little you will improve. Little by little, your posture gets better, your balance gets better, your awareness gets better."
"My friend knows a guy who went to try to fight this sifu, and he wouldn't fight. The guy wouldn't give up, so the sifu insisted on full body armor. With one blow, only an inch from the guy's body, the sifu annihilated him, blasted off the body armor, broke ribs, snapped other bones."
"We don't do much of that in one semester," I say. "The college's insurance wouldn't appreciate that unit in my syllabus."
They don't smile. "It's chi," the friend says. "See how your palm is red and white? Well, the red stuff's chi. It has amazing power. But it's a dark art." They're both nodding now.
I'm not sure what to say. I wish I had a lecture prepared on power, compassion, responsibility. What exactly can I tell them in the minute or so before it's my turn to throw? I don't think of anything brilliant and the guy keeps talking.
"The sifu was going to hit a chair and all his students knelt around it. He stopped his blow an inch away from the chair, and the chair shattered into tiny splinters. All his students fell over from the force of his non-blow. That's chi," he says. "That's the power of one inch blows."
"We call it 'ki'," I say. "Although I wouldn't describe it quite like that. My teacher does amazing things. He's been practicing daily for over 50 years. You practice 50 years, you'll do amazing things too. Little by little."
I start to tell about my teacher, how he's relaxed and friendly wherever he goes, equally comfortable laughing and joking with the guy who fills his gas tank or the mayor of his small town.
But the inquisitive young man shakes his head. I am not telling him what he came to hear. He is not so interested in an old man's kindness. "No," he says. "This guy says his teacher can teach this stuff to me in one month. It's all in the red parts of your hand."
"Magic," I should say. "You want magic? Look at those students over there laughing, playing, taking care of each other. Five months ago they were awkward, tentative, afraid, rough. They didn't trust each other or themselves. Now they're partners, a cohesive group. That's magic."
"What you're describing isn't a martial art. It's a storyline for a video game."
But I don't say either of these things because I don't think of them. I don't know how to answer someone looking to be, in one month, a chair-splintering, bone-shattering sifu. "Well," I say. "Good luck."
Now Anna's on the mat, and Lori too. They're two of my senior students, signed up as audits, part of the reason I'll get to offer Advanced Aikido in the fall. Angie, a new student this semester, joins the group. It splits into pairs and keeps working. Antonio and Jennifer teach Angie to knee-walk, something our new class hasn't gotten to yet. I watch Lori's live toes, feet perfectly together, erect posture, as she pins Anna in ikkyo. Five semesters ago, maybe even four semesters ago, or three, her feet would have been splayed wide as she leaned over uke. "Excellent posture, Lori," I say.
I join Antonio, Jennifer, and Angie knee-walking across the mat.
© 2008 Susan Dalton
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.