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Baby in the Corner

It was a Friday night 6 years ago when Amy first walked into the dojo. We were barely open, in fact I am pretty sure my husband was driving nails into drywall at the exact moment she entered. Still, there we were, post Friday night sparring class, hands wrapped, faces sweaty. At the time Amy lived above the dojo, and she was excited to finally see the old abandoned deli turn into something. She walked in, all smiles, eager to find out about us, and was met at the door with a handshake and a "Shhh, there's a baby sleeping in the corner." 

That baby, was my daughter, Maya, and she, like the Columbus Avenue dojo, was brand new. That Friday she dozed in her Pack & Play in the corner of the room, completely oblivious to the heated battles that were playing out on the floor nearby. It was not the first, nor would it be the last time she slept in the dojo. Our female students may remember tiptoeing around a small toddler on Saturday afternoons, napping on a mat on the floor of the women's changing room. 

Maya grew up in the dojo. Literally. 

Our students, Amy, Gail and Rufino, who received their black belts yesterday after 3 grueling days of promotion and many months of preparation, also grew in the dojo. The journey from white belt to black belt is not unlike the journey from newborn to child. You start out shaky, uncertain, not sure where to put your hands or how to properly balance on your feet.  You learn new words. Your body learns how to do new things. Things you needed help with, you suddenly can do on your own. And, in the way that childhood is only one step on the path to adulthood, first degree black belt is only one milestone in the long, amazing life of a serious martial artist. You are not done at black belt. You are just grown. The journey is just beginning.

But to be fair, it is a pretty big milestone.

The experience of black belt promotion is long, intense and all consuming. (Anyone who has visited my Facebook page in this past month could attest to that.) It is both terribly stressful and wonderfully exhilarating. You will have moments where you want to quit and moments where you are pretty sure you could lift the entire building up over your head like Superman. But in the end what will linger most is the people. You went through something incredible together. You will get home and think "Whew, thank god that is over. Thank god I am alone, in my room, with my own thoughts, where no one is looking at me or asking me to do things or....hey, I wonder what Amy is doing right now. I should call her..." You will text each other for no reason other than to say hello. 

On Wednesday night, after our first day was complete, I was talking to Shuseki-Shihan Monte who is the head instructor of the Brooklyn dojo and one of the two men who run the promotion. I mentioned that I was feeling a little frustrated, not with how I had performed, which was fine, but with how I felt out there. He said, "As long as you learned something, it was worth doing."

I learned a lot about myself this past week, about patience and acceptance and resilience and determination and the benefits of getting outside my comfort zone no matter how difficult and scary it may be. I learned how strong I can be, both physically and mentally. I also have a whole list of things I need to work on, and only a handful of them have anything to do with karate. But more importantly, I learned a ton about other people. I learned about one student's childhood. I learned about another guy's family. I heard how it feels to recover from a major injury and what it is like to have your father be your teacher. I did not learn these things during the actual promotion, but in conversations I had while eating dinner before we began, while stretching out in the corner, while waiting for the others to show up, and at brunch on Sunday when it was all over. 

Tonight, we celebrate with everyone at our dojo. Tomorrow, life goes back to normal. In other words, we train. A four year old jumps around while I try to get him to stand still. Little Jake chews his fingers. I work on my half guard. 

Around 1am Friday night, somewhere between sai kata and choking out the bear, Shuseki-Shihan Monte said this: "Its late. We could be anywhere right now. But we are here for one reason. We love what we do." 

Yup, that pretty much sums it up. 

Congratulations to our new black belts, Amy, Gail and Rufino.
Congratulations to my wonderful husband, the new Kyoshi Matthew.
And congratulations to me. 
It was certainly worth it.


PS: Part of the promotion experience includes writing an essay on the philosophy of your karate. For those of you interested in reading mine, I have pasted it below. Feel free to read it now, or later, or never. I completely understand if you are sick of me. I certainly am. 

Student Teacher

Exactly one year ago, I had the privilege of watching two remarkable karateka participate in promotion to 5th degree black belt. These men were not just physically impressive.  It went beyond their flawless punches and well memorized terminology. They exhibited a level of focus and energy that would be impossible for a first degree black belt, even the most gifted athlete. Both of them had spent hours, days, years, truly thinking about each technique they threw, to make each one as real as possible. These two men live and breathe the martial arts, even after over 30 years of training. Standing there on the dojo floor in front of me, were two people who fully embodied everything that I believe a karate master should be.

These two students were of course Kyoshi Russell and Kyoshi Desi. And after watching their performance I was pretty certain of two things. Number one, I really needed to work on my technique. And number two, I was never taking another Kenshikai promotion, ever again.

It is not that my karate was so terrible. Actually, I think I do a pretty decent kata. And it certainly wasn’t because I hadn’t put the time in. After all, it has been 7 years since my last promotion. No, it was more about the kind of karate student I used to be, compared to who I am now.

Every senior student knows it is difficult to stay excited about karate when you have been doing it for twenty five years. That is not to say that I still do not love my training. Just that I have done an awful lot of chudan tsukis. And although there is always something to work on, even in the basic techniques, there is only so much thrill you can get out of just taking class every week. So you find something else to add to your martial arts experience. For some, it is to pursue a deeper understanding of the moves, their history, the practical nature of the katas. For others, it is to start teaching, to find meaning in your training by sharing it with new karatekas.

For me, it was not enough to become a teacher. I also took up jiu-jitsu.

About 3 years ago, I decided it was time to be a white belt again. I wanted to feel the confusion of being brand new at something, in particular, a martial art that was very different from karate. I had no idea what I was getting into.

I am a blue belt now, and I love it! But my first 6 months of BJJ training were very, very difficult. Twenty plus years of karate did not give my any kind of edge when it came to grappling. (Other than the stubbornness to not quit when some giant dude was sitting on my chest, trying to choke me.) The moves were so confusing. And there were SO many of them! And I was oh so small. And did I mention that they were sitting on me?

Honestly, the only reason I did not quit is because I do not quite know how to quit a martial art. I never have. Clearly.

My journey from hopeless BJJ white belt to the semi-confident blue belt that I am now is a whole other 3 page essay. But I mention it here only because at the time I was watching Kyoshi Russell and Kyoshi Desi perform their impressive Tai Sabaki, I was very, very into my jiu-jitsu training.

Of course, that wasn’t all I was doing.
I was also running a dojo.

When Sensei Matthew and I took over the UWS Kenshikai branch, we really had no idea what we were doing. Shuseki-Shihan had passed away suddenly, and all we knew was that we were supposed to keep his dojo alive somehow. Everyone was shocked and confused, but even in the midst of all that, people wanted to come to class. I distinctly remember there was one evening, in the middle of those first few whirlwind months, where we had a meeting of all the parents. There we were, Sensei Matthew and I (we were still Senpais at the time), talking to 10-15 parents whose kids had just lost their karate teacher. We were not sure exactly what we were doing there honestly, just that we felt we ought to tell them something.

The kids chased each other around the dojo for an hour, sliding across the wooden floor in their socks like they always had. Meanwhile, the parents all had one question. When can we bring our kids to class?

I was still working full time back then, but I had arranged with my boss to leave work early so I could teach our first 5:30pm kids class. It was not my first time teaching karate (I had been assisting Shuseki-Shihan for awhile, as well as working in numerous other kids programs) but that did not matter. I was terrified! I do not remember what I taught them that day, only that whenever I was unsure I just told them to yell louder.

When all else fails, just kiai. A lot.

That was almost ten years ago.  Now the UWS dojo has close to 150 children enrolled. We have beginner classes, advanced classes, classes for 8-12 year olds, classes for 5-7 year olds, and my favorite, the 3-4 year old pre-karate class. I invented this class from scratch, combining karate techniques with obstacle courses, games, and other exercises. I have tricks for making them kick (pick up your knee and then shake a bug off your toe), for making them put their hands up (show me your scary faces!) and most importantly, tricks for getting them to stand still. (For a few seconds anyway. They are 3.)

I teach both the 3-4 year old and 5-7 year old classes at our dojo. And every time I step in front of those kids I try to be a better teacher. The days when things do not go the way I planned (and there are many) I go home and play the class over in my head, trying to figure out what I could have done differently. Whenever a kid quits karate I try to figure out if there was anything I could have done to keep them there longer. Sensei Matthew and I have long conversations (usually in the car) about how we can improve the dojo. We brainstorm for new ideas. We plan events. We complain about annoying parents. In other words, I put a lot of effort into trying to be the best instructor I can.

When I watched the Sensei/Kyoshi promotion last year, my first thought was “I am not like them.  I do not look like them. I do not train like them. I put more focus into running the dojo, than training in it.” Not to mention all those arm bars and gi chokes. I thought I did not deserve to get any more stripes on my belt unless I was one hundred percent devoted to being a karate student.

But over the past year, I realized that I was wrong. I am still am extremely dedicated student. I am a student of being a teacher.

When I spend an hour trying to figure out the best way to teach a four year old Taikyoku 1, I am working on my karate. Every time I walk a brand new yellow belt through Pinan 2, I am learning more about the details of the kata. As anyone who has ever taught before can tell you,  the best way to find out exactly how well you know your techniques is to try to explain them to someone else.

Of course, I still take class 2-3 times a week, every week. And although I would be lying if I said that I wake up every morning chomping at the bit to practice karate, there is still nothing more comforting to me than my bare feet on a hardwood floor. Some days performing kata, the same kata I have done for 20 plus years, is as natural and beautiful to me as walking alongside the ocean. I love my white gi and my beat up tattered black belt more than anything else I own. And although running a dojo is not always easy,  I truly love teaching those little guys karate.

For all these reasons I am honored to be attending this promotion. Still, when Shihan Leighton handed me my letter (and took my black belt away!) I felt panicked. What was I getting myself into? Who do these people expect to see up there? My punches don’t look like those other guys. A chronic shoulder injury means that lately I have been working more on precision than power. These days, when I spar, it is less about aggression and more about strategy. I have no interest anymore in pushing myself to the point of injury. I am older. I am different. I do jiu-jitsu now. I just learned that sai kata a month ago! All of our students are going to be so excited for me.

I am going to disappoint everyone!!

But then I caught my breath and remembered. I am not representing perfection. I am representing perseverance. I am representing having run a successful dojo for 8 years. I am representing being a leader to a bunch of confused and very fidgety four year olds. I am representing change and growth and maturity. The me who is going for Kyoshi does not have to look like the me who went for Sensei 7 years ago. It does not have to look like those other Kyoshis. (Thank goodness!) It just has to look like me. This me. Now.

Thank you so much for this opportunity. I am honored to be up here representing my dojo. Thank you especially to Sensei Matthew Fremon, who is not just my husband and my business partner, but someone who inspires me every day with his strength, his creativity and his passion for improvement. (I could talk about him for hours, but you can just read his essay.)
As a Kyoshi, I promise to continue to train hard, in everything. I promise to continue to grow, as a student, and as a teacher. I promise to keep thinking of ways to get those three year olds to stand still.

I still don’t look like those other two. But I promise to keep practicing my kata. Perhaps someday I’ll get there.


  1. Osu, Kyoshi (and I have yet to get tired of typing/saying that): Thank you so much for sharing that essay. It was magnificent.



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