This story, written in 1998 by Susan Dalton, was originally published in Aikido Today Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.
Recently I had the opportunity to watch a dear friend's daughter test for her purple belt in karate. "This style is a combination of Tae Kwon Do, Karate, and Aikido," my friend told me the sensei had told her. I came to support the child because I know how hard she has worked on her kata, but I also wanted to check out the sensei because I may need a new sensei for my child. You see, I teach the children's Aikido class in our dojo, and my five-year-old is having a hard time seeing me as sensei rather than mom. My son has the same problem sometimes, but he's thirteen and has had eight years of Aikido experience both in the children and adult classes. A raised eyebrow and a private, "Is that the way you would act if Betsy or Jay Sensei were teaching this class?" usually pulls him back into line. But my daughter...
One night I was teaching tenchinage when one of the adult students came into the dojo. She had a startling new hair color, or at least my daughter seemed to think so. Uke and I had bowed to each other and were starting to stand when my daughter squealed, "Mama, Mama, look! That lady has purple hair!" Sometimes my daughter talks during exercises, and once she cried because it was another child's turn to clap us in and out. I try to handle her as I would any child, with patience and respect, but doing so requires every bit of practice I have ever had in maintaining my center. Yes, she's unusually exuberant and energetic and she loves rolling and jyu waza, but sitting in seiza, standing patiently in line, and being quiet can present problems. I am trying to get my class ready for an embukai, and I want them to do right! Maybe my daughter would behave better for another sensei.
Admittedly, I am a soft-touch. Both my children are miracle children, and maybe because I had such a hard time staying pregnant, my children delight me every day of my life. All the children in my class delight me. Sometimes I think they aren't paying attention to anything I say, and then they're all doing tai sabaki in perfect sync, offering encouragement to someone who is having a hard time executing a technique, asking another student how "Old Sensei" would have handled a tough situation. My older students support and teach the beginners, and I am very proud of the spirit of cooperation in our class. Two brothers tell us how they use Aikido to keep from fighting with each other. Another set of siblings congratulates them and shows us games they learned at their old dojo. I love the openness and enthusiasm in my class, but I do not command what I think of as martial order. Our dojo has two rules -- be safe and have fun -- and we try to do both in the children's class. But still, maybe I should toughen up. Or maybe I should let my daughter experience martial arts in another dojo. Maybe this karate sensei would be just the person to teach her. Certainly no children were talking during his test.
Probably somewhere between forty and fifty students had dressed out for this karate test, and maybe fifteen were actually testing. Our dojo is very traditional, so we spend more time bowing, but even the smallest children in this class stood at attention and knew their kata. Kicks were crisp and determined. My small friend performed very well, and after an hour and a half, the test was over. No, not quite -- students being tested for purple belt and above would be awarded their new belts, but first they would have to "walk the line". The sensei took a few minutes to explain the reasoning behind the line. It would improve communication in the dojo. All students would accept another student's new rank. The forty or fifty students who had dressed out for the test would line up around the room, in ranking order. As the person being tested walked the line, each student would either bow or challenge the new rank by fighting the person for four minutes or until the challenger bowed.
At first I thought this tradition just a formality. No one challenged the first few students, and my friend beside me exhaled loudly as her daughter finished walking the line without being challenged. Then a brown belt stepped out to challenge a small, stocky boy. As he finished that four minute fight, another brown belt stepped out, then another. All the brown belts hammered the child's left side, and he held his ribs as he struggled to stand. "I don't like this," my friend said; then the child's test was over. Several more people were challenged, some by three or more people. As the crowd shouted encouragement, the students fought for their new ranks.
"I don't see the Aikido in this," I told my friend.
A prospective red belt, maybe ten or eleven years old, began his walk. Did the brown belts challenge him? I don't remember. I only remember his sensei stepping onto the floor. This eighth degree black belt stood well over six feet tall, weighed over two hundred pounds, and towered over this child he was punching with such force in the face. My own son weighs around one hundred pounds and is much bigger than this child. The power of one of the sensei's punches knocked the child to the floor.
"What is that pitiful look?" the sensei screamed. "You're testing for a red belt. You won't get a red belt by looking pitiful. Spar!" He hit the child in the face again, hard, and I heard the child take a ragged breath and start to cry. "Suck it up," the sensei yelled. "Kiai." The child did and was able to regain his composure, but still the sensei was hitting him hard in the face. Had the sensei reacted so violently because his own loss of control embarrassed him? Was he protecting his ego even though he knew he had gone too far? Had he intentionally hit the child that hard or did he underestimate the strength of his punches? Either way, this sensei will never see my child in his dojo.
"If that was my child, I'd have to leave the room," my friend said.
I shook my head. "If that was my child, sensei would be fighting us both."
On the way home I asked my daughter what she thought of the test. She had crawled in my lap during "the line", and I wondered if what she had seen frightened or upset her. "I didn't like the way that big person hit that little person so hard," I said.
"Mommy, he was trying to teach those kids they were wrong." As she talked, I realized children almost always think the adult is right and the child is wrong. Kids feel they must deserve the treatment they receive. As teachers working with children, we have a tremendous privilege and also a tremendous responsibility not to betray their trust.
I had a hard time sleeping that night. Certainly I was an outsider looking in at the culture of that dojo, but I believe I witnessed child abuse. Why did I do nothing? Some of my reaction comes from my own issues, surely.
Several people I have talked with have offered a different perspective. One of my good friends in my dojo said, "If you captured a Zen Master at a certain moment in time, some of his behavior could have seemed violent and extreme." One of my sensei explained that the martial arts have a long history of corporal punishment which even some Aikido dojo practice. Supposedly, the student becomes tougher and stronger. The child testing was able to pull himself together and successfully complete his test. He now knows he has the inner resources to succeed in that type of stressful situation.
My sensei and dojo cho summed up the way I feel when he said, "That kind of treatment makes a person hard on the outside and weak on the inside." It teaches that violence and physical strength are the answers to conflict. Some people may be very happy with that philosophy; I'm glad I have an alternative for myself and my children.
© 1998 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.