This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Susan Dalton © 2017, all rights reserved.
So we're more than halfway through the semester at the community college and I'm watching my second class do line rolling drills. Amber, Melissa, and Demi, my senior students, fifth and fourth kyus, lead the groups. As nage, they each sit in seiza as members of their group walk or run up to attack ushiro dori. At the dojo we'd do this exercise as hanmi hantachi sankyo, but in a class of twenty beginners, it's a kokyunage. Nage isn't allowed to grab, just folds forward into a bow. Uke controls the speed of the throw by deciding on the speed of the attack and can let go and set up his or her own roll at any point.
Students who are really comfortable with their rolls can choose to attack by grabbing the gi at the top of one shoulder and then coming around to grab the top of the other shoulder too. For this attack, nage falls forward into an elbow plank to send uke flying. They are all rolling safely, beautifully—same arm and same leg forward, head tucked, nice and round and soft. They're having so much fun that I have to join in a few times in each group so I can roll too.
Just like every semester, now that I've gotten them fun to play with, they'll be leaving me. Yes, a few will stick around for a second class (advanced P.E.). Some will pay to take the class again even if they have already taken aikido and advanced P.E. and can't get any more college credit. However, most are headed out to transfer to universities or go to work. Not that they don't already work—most of my students work one or more jobs as well as go to school.
I feel honored they choose to spend some of their precious, limited time in my aikido class. I know, too, that one reason both of my aikido classes fill is because we have limited P.E. options at my college. In the classroom they can take aikido, yoga, or walking for fitness, or they can complete a wellness class online. Like me, many of my students can't sit and listen to lecture all day. They need to move!
Or, they tell me, they signed up because they saw aikido on The Walking Dead.
The ones who are going thirty miles away to the university in the town where I live and where the dojo is tell me they'll be coming to class at the dojo next semester, but I know most won't. A few will continue at other universities in the state, places where aikido clubs are active. Every once in a while I get an email from a student who is still practicing.
In the thirteen years I've been teaching aikido at the college, I've seen so many come and go. I've told them all to let me know when they test for shodan. I'll be there.
I listen as Demi encourages by repeating words I've said to her, words my first teacher said to me. I hope I've remembered to tell her the most important ones.
Last summer when our shihan was here, he remarked on my students' basics. (Don't worry; he gave me plenty for them to work on, too.) Mostly, though, he noticed how they take care of each other. I love how in less than three months a class can become a community.
Melissa told me after the first day of class how a student came running into the advising center. "OH MY GOD, THAT WOMAN IS CRAZY! Get me out of there," the student said. "She has mats set up and she made us roll around and choke each other!" I see that same student today smiling widely as she grabs Melissa and flies through the air.
With Amber's encouragement, one member of her group is rolling on both sides now, even that darned right side that was giving her trouble. Jordan has helped someone in his group figure out how to go straight forward instead of sideways.
My senior students come early and stay between classes to help their classmates. I see them extending the same care to others that makes the dojo in Greensboro such a special place. I'm proud that spirit lives on in this extension of the dojo.
They're rolling so beautifully I decide to teach them to feather fall, something we've been working on in the dojo on Wednesday nights, something I don't do well. But these guys are young. Within a few minutes most of them can do a feather fall, staying up on their shoulders instead of rolling down to one hip. My body, after 25 years of rolling, insists upon the old way. I do a few passable feather falls and they applaud, like they do for each other when someone manages something that's been difficult. I love my students.
Because I do love them, this semester has been hard. Someone got hurt the second day of class, and I've had to examine my self-righteousness. Can't I just be right and that be the end of it? Can't I just keep thinking that no one ever gets hurt in my classes because I'm so wonderful and I take such care?
We were going slowly, rolling from our knees, when we heard a loud crack like a huge branch exploding in an ice storm. She was already going over when I heard that horrible noise. I'm so careful. I'm so, so careful. How did this happen? For weeks I woke in the night to the sickening sound of a collarbone breaking. Used to, I only worried about my own rolls. I honestly thought how I looked as I rolled was the most important part. Being Sensei looked cool, too, not like anything I could ever imagine doing. I had no idea of the sense of responsibility I would feel, the awesome, terrible, tremendous responsibility of being Sensei.
But I get to do the fun parts of being Sensei too. I get to pick when we do jyuwaza and what we do next. I get to slide in all the parts I need to work on or what I think would be fun that day. Yes, I teach them the techniques they'll see if they decide to stick around and test, but I only have most of them for four and a half months. There's so much I want to show them.
"You won't be Steven Seagal after one semester," I tell them. But really, would ten years be long enough to teach them all I want them to know?
"Be kind to each other," I say. That's the most important thing. "And take care."
We've incorporated stretches along with ab exercises my shihan's daughter taught us into the last ten minutes of each class. We'll have to move to that routine soon or we'll run out of time. We need to bow out and pull up the mats before yoga starts in this classroom. Ten years ago my back problems made me think I might have to quit aikido. Stretching and ab exercises have made a huge difference. I make sure we do them every class. Now I'm strong. Still, at almost sixty, I don't do big break falls much. Even when I did, I'm not sure my falls were ever as lovely as theirs.
Ah, to be young and rolling like they do.
But I don't really envy their youth. If I were young, I wouldn't be about to burst with pride as I watch my students, most of whom were born after I started practicing aikido. I wouldn't have the privilege of teaching them. Nor would I be about to retire with my sweetheart. I'd have to give up being YaYa to my beautiful grandbaby and watching my own amazing adult children venture into the world.
With my students, just like with my children, I have to hope I've given enough of what was given me. I stand back and watch them fly.
"The Mirror" is written by a roster of women who describe themselves as a disparate bunch of scientists, healers, artists, teachers, and, yes, writers. Over ten years into this collaboration we find we are a bunch of middle-aged yudansha from various parts of the world and styles of aikido. What we share is a lively curiosity about and love for both life and budo, and an inveterate tendency to write about our explorations.