This column was written by Susan Dalton © 2008
In 2006 I watched my now adult son fly and bend and get up again and again as my shihan's uke. I thought back to 2002 when he took his first black belt test. It's a wonder he survived growing up in a dojo with his mother, but thank goodness, he did.
My children are both miracle babies. I did six months of bed-rest while pregnant with my son and seven months with my daughter. During my last pregnancy, once a month my doctor would let me get up and go "out", and I'd lie on my side on the rug beside the mat at the dojo, watch my son and the rest of the class roll, and wish I was out there. By the time he took his black belt test at sixteen, we'd been practicing together for eleven years. My teachers had moved away and asked my dear friend Jay Sensei to be chief instructor and me to take the dojo. Our first test with me as dojo cho would include Ryan's shodan test.
Ryan wanted to use me as uke. He had served as assistant and number one uke in the children's class I taught back then, and we've done several demonstrations and workshops together. He always has been and probably always will be my favorite uke. But, unlike my son's beautiful, flowing, relaxed ukemi, mine is, well, not. Ryan insisted on my being his uke even when I told him to use someone younger and more flexible, someone who'd make him look good. "No, Mom," he said. "I want to use you."
He knows the Japanese, so remembering techniques caused no problem for him. The thirty falls, the most intimidating part of the shodan test to me, came effortlessly to him. Some folks challenged him a time or two in practice, maybe because of his age, but if uke resisted him, Ryan responded with a grin and no more resistance than usual. His ego wouldn't keep him from becoming a black belt. His stumbling block was the same one I had had--not taking up his space and owning the mat. This problem showed up in his koshinage.
I don't particularly like that big fall, and I'm self-conscious about being too heavy for a small, slim person like Ryan to heave onto his back. We practiced and practiced after class and sometimes koshinage worked and sometimes it didn't. I went to our head instructor and told him Ryan and I were having trouble. I explained that Ryan seemed so small to me, he's my baby, and I don't want to hurt him. Sensei said he'd wait and call koshinage at the end of Ryan's test and Ryan could have another uke for that part of the test.
The day of the test I came home from work, did some last minute icing of drinks and cleaning for the party at our house after the test, gathered the paperwork I would be sending to Japan, and rushed to the dojo. Our sister dojo had arrived and our little mat overflowed with folks working on last-minute practice and sensei coordinating lists of people testing. We held a short class and then the test began. As always, my feet went to sleep after so long in seiza, and tonight I felt more nervous than I had for my own shodan test. Because this test was our first without our teachers, all five teachers from three different dojo called techniques.
Finally, Ryan and another shodan candidate were called up and asked to choose their ukes. We did a few techniques; then one sensei, who knew how often we'd been working on koshinage, called it. Oh yuck. I had forgotten to tell the other folks Jay Sensei was going to let Ryan do koshi with another uke. Ryan tried to do it, and Sensei told him to switch ukes with the other person testing. So I went to the other end of the mat where I saw no more of Ryan's test. However, for the first time all night I relaxed and flew beautifully.
The next morning Jay Sensei called. "Susan, this is a difficult call to make, but I need to tell you that Ryan did not pass his shodan test." The awkward moment became even more awkward when I started to cry. I told him I felt guilty that I had ruined Ryan's test. "That wasn't the problem," he said. He told me the test wasn't a terrible test, really, but he knew Ryan could do better. Sensei wanted Ryan, our first shodan candidate who started in the children's class, to send a great tape to Japan. He and I talked about Ryan's lack of confidence and backing out of techniques and agreed that Sensei would come over, talk to Ryan, and watch the tape with him. My husband and I would go to the grocery store.
When we got home, Sensei was leaving and Ryan was watching the tape again. "I'm so sorry I messed up your test," I said and once again my eyes started to tear up.
"Mom, I wanted to use you as uke and I did. This test is just not the one I want to send to Japan for Tanaka Shihan to see. I am capable of much better." Then he started laughing. "Jay Sensei told me I was taking this news better than you are. I see what he means."
For the next six months Ryan stayed after class at least twice a week, and Jay Sensei worked with him. Ironically, Jason, his partner from his very first test when he was six years old returned to Aikido after a seven-year hiatus and they began practicing together often. When Ryan was six, Jason was a college student who rode a motorcycle to class. Every day when we arrived at the dojo, Ryan would check the parking lot for motorcycles. If he found one, he'd then go check the shoe shelf for Jason's size thirteen sneakers. "Yes!" he'd exclaim if he found the shoes. Most people were surprised when tiny Ryan chose 6'5" Jason to be uke for his very first test, but I knew his choice had nothing to do with Jason's size.
"Ryan, I won't be your uke for your test in the spring," I told him. "I got more nervous for you than I did for my own tests and that's not fair to you. I'll stay after class and work with you, whatever you need, and I'm flattered that you'd choose me again, but ask somebody else."
I watched after class as Ryan and Jason worked on koshinage, kotegaishe, aikiotoshi, and jyujinage. Sometimes I couldn't resist jumping in. Jay Sensei barked out Japanese and Jason's big body crashed onto the mat. And of course, in the spring Ryan had an excellent test, the best I've ever seen, not that I'm biased or anything.
Jay Sensei told me he was proud of Ryan's test, but he was most proud of how Ryan had handled the disappointment of not passing his first test. Instead of hanging his head, he had stayed after class every night and worked hard, making a sincere effort to improve.
My own test came the Friday night before Ryan's Sunday afternoon test, during a practice test in class. Jay Sensei called Ryan up and Jason wasn't in class. When Sensei told him to choose an uke, Ryan looked at me. I nodded toward a particularly athletic brown belt across the room, but Ryan shook his head slightly and said in a loud, clear voice, "Mom".
Did this big wrist I was grabbing really belong to my baby? Was this person moving so confidently and purposefully my little boy? Sensei called out, "Koshinage" and before I could think of resisting, I was loaded and flying. Ryan and I grinned at each other and then I grinned at Sensei. He grinned back and called it again. Again, I was flying. And again. And again.
"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.