This column was written by Susan Dalton.
One night years ago we had a young, strong visitor, one of those who was probably half my age and twice my rank. Okay, I exaggerate, but he was younger and higher ranking. He arrived late, after warm-ups and bowing in. I'd seen him before at a seminar, where someone whispered to me to be careful working with him. "He likes pain compliance," my friend had said. "But he goes so fast that the damage is already done before uke has time to feel the pain. Last time I worked with him, I had to have my wrists taped for weeks."
"Thank goodness," I thought to myself as I watched him come in the door. "Sensei is teaching tonight and not me."
I partnered with him first. I could feel Sensei's eye on us a while, but he let us go as he walked around to help other students. Soon I was breathing hard; we were really going at it. This guy attacked with gusto, but I felt safe enough. Still, would the white belts remember to tuck their heads over toward their arms if they were being cranked in shihonage? Would they remember to slow their attacks down if things were moving too fast? To get softer and softer if someone was harder than they were used to? Would they remember that any safety issue trumps rank? Should I maybe break our tradition of everybody working with everybody since besides Sensei and this guy I was the only other black belt on the mat? Should I work with him the entire class? "Let it go. Breathe," I told myself. "This is Sensei's class. He's got it."
Sensei called our visitor to be uke. Even while Sensei was talking, this guy gave a full-out attack. Good grief, he took a big fall, and then he was up, taking another one, and another. Sensei grinned and after a few more our visitor was starting to suck wind like I was. "Now, let's slow it down," Sensei said. "Here's what I want you to focus on. For this technique, I want you to give slow, controlled attacks the first few times."
I glanced over to where our visitor was working with one of the white belts. She seemed to be okay. They'd gone through their first few slow attacks, and now he was rearing back to launch into full attack mode. Sensei clapped and called the visitor as his uke. Sensei threw the visitor around a little while until he was breathing hard again, then asked him to slow it down and told us what he wanted us to concentrate on as we practiced.
This time the visitor paired with one of our brown belts. Sensei stepped over to feel the visitor's technique a few times, made a few adjustments, then nodded and let them continue. Usually he'd practice with different groups, but tonight he mostly watched. During this technique I noticed he didn't go far from our visitor and the brown belt. We worked a good long time, and then Sensei called our visitor as uke again. The young guy's attacks were starting to slow just a bit. Sensei threw him around a little while longer, then gave us teaching points.
I could tell our visitor was tiring, but he was still moving faster than his white belt partner probably felt comfortable with. Sensei clapped almost immediately and called the visitor as uke again. Class went on this way all night with Sensei keeping a close eye on our visitor, allowing ukes who could handle him to continue and cutting short techniques where less experienced students worked with him. And as class wore on and our visitor took more and more falls for Sensei, he got slower and softer.
On the ride home, I marveled at Sensei's brilliant conducting of class. "That," I said to myself, "is what I want to be when I grow up, a sensei who is aware of the entire class and who handles problems before they arise." Probably nobody but me even noticed what Sensei had done. Years later I remarked on this particular class and Sensei said, "Did I do that? You're probably giving me more credit than I deserve." That's also what I want to be when I grow up—a sensei who handles situations so routinely that I won't even have to glory in the times I do.
"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.