For Betsy Sensei, John Sensei, and J Sensei
The graduate student arched her eyebrow. She'd just completed a five minute explanation of nihilism. She waved Megan's manuscript at my wide-eyed class. "Learn your craft. Then write." That was one of her kinder comments.
When we got back to campus after the writing workshop we'd attended at a literary festival, my class irritated me. Number one, they thought just because the workshop leader insulted them, she was incredibly intelligent and hip and must be "right". Number two, after almost a semester of building trust and community, they were ready to abandon those methods and showcase their own brilliance by taking each other apart. Well, a college classroom is no more a democracy than a dojo.
"Whoa. Stop. Unh unh," I said. "You've worked all semester to establish connections and you're going to sever them for the sake of showing off?" Thank goodness I've had writing and aikido teachers who modeled good teaching for me. In a writing classroom, just like in a dojo, an atmosphere of trust is crucial. I attended a highly competitive writing program myself. The competition game hasn't changed in the 24 years since I graduated. Personally, I believe cooperation is a much more effective way to teach. I'm not letting students go off on each other any more than I can let them crank shihonage on the new guy on the mat.
Okay, it's true that I can spend years reading about how to write, just exactly the way I can spend years reading about how to do aikido or the history of aikido or what someone else thinks about aikido. But the only way I can hope to figure out anything about aikido is to do it. If I wait until I'm good at it to practice, until I've learned my craft, I'll never do it. My wonderful teachers let me try, muddle through, then try again, often times making the same mistakes again and again. They knew when to push and when to let up, and they insisted upon respect for and sensitivity toward everyone on the mat. Be safe and have fun, they said. And play nice, or don't play. I was one to argue back, explain, apologize, make excuses. Nope, they said, none of that. Stop talking and do it again. Try your best. See what you're doing wrong; then let it go. No whining, either. You don't have to be perfect. Just try; then try again. Persevere. Little by little. I'm not the quickest study, but anyone can thrive in that atmosphere. My teachers gave me a safe place to practice. They taught me aikido and much, much more.
I've also had terrible teachers who insulted and belittled, expected perfection from day one—I took piano for five years from such a teacher, and to this day, I will not even play "Mary Had a Little Lamb". This teacher taught by yelling, intimidating, and humiliating. I shut down. I'll never forget being eight years old and sitting on the front pew of the fanciest church I'd ever been in, my starched blue dress and crinolines itchy on the backs of my legs. "Susan is going first in the recital this year," my teacher announced to an audience of probably 200 people, "not because she's youngest but because she has the least talent." Later when she substitute-taught at my junior high school, she questioned why I was in a 7th grade Advanced Learners English class. "I thought you were mentally retarded," she said. Yes, she got a laugh from the class, but at what cost? I never played another song for her without hearing my own secret lyrics in my head, lyrics that began, "The pointy-nosed old bitch…" and deteriorated from there. I quit trying at all, and even my mother recognized the futility of my continuing lessons. This bullying teacher taught me two lasting lessons: how not to teach and the incredible power of a teacher's words. I promised myself if I ever taught that I would teach through positive words and encouragement.
"Positive words and encouragement"—does that mean I shouldn't point out my students' lack of detail in their writing or their awful posture on an ikkyo pin? Of course not. I've found that if my students trust me, I can offer very specific constructive criticism and they'll take it. But they have to know I'm sensitive to and have respect for who they are and where they are. I must be in control. I cannot show off at their expense.
I wish I could say I always live up to my teachers' example, just as I'd like to be able to say, "I fully know my craft." Neither is true, but it's in the doing that I'm becoming. And for now, becoming is a good place to be.
© 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.