Crisis of Sensei – Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan Iaido and Roukudan Jodo

One of my students is at the stage of training I call “crisis of sensei”. It’s the point where sensei tips from being some sort of infallable font of all wisdom to where he seems to be imperfect, just a man.

It’s the teenage years of your budo life, a time of pushing authority, the start of becoming your own person and not just “little Pete” as I was known around my father’s town. As when you were a teen, there’s a certain amount of friction, a certain amount of being suspicious that you may know better than your dad. My grandfather used to say that “there’s nothing smarter in the world than a 15 year old boy, except maybe a 14 year old girl”.

Me, I have been known to say “leave the students alone, 19 is the last time that they will be certain, absolutely certain, that they know what’s wrong with the world and how to fix it”. I mean that, they need to grow up with the bare minimum of interferance if we want to avoid another generation that just repeats our mistakes. They need to find their own mistakes. They need, eventually, to figure out what they need from this world, and then how to ask for it.

Same is true of budo students. What, precisely, is it that you’re supposed to do after you learn the kata? I mean you’ve spent ten years learning the movements and getting really smooth doing them. You have passed the tests and maybe you’ve even got a teaching licence. What do you do now? Well if you don’t simply walk out the door and start teaching, you’re going to have to separate yourself from your teacher another way. This has to be done, and in a subtle way your sensei will give you the bricks to make the wall. Thirty year old dudes who still live at home should be paying rent or at least making their own meals and washing their own underwear. Should be buying their own clothes for that matter.

If you’re a sensei who is actually teaching pre-teens all this can take longer and be as complicated as having your own kids involved. For most of their learning curve you’ve not only had a duty to pass along the course material, you’ve also had a duty of care (in loco parentis) to a child. Theoretically, I have no such problems, I teach in a University and my students have mostly passed through their teen years. Still, they may be going through a first physical separation from home, first loves and rejections, first bloody noses up against the “real world” so yes, sometimes I’m a mom wiping noses, but I mostly say that I’m not, and that’s mostly true.

Don’t want the job anyway, I have taken in enough “birds with broken wings” as my mother used to say. She never realized how few people of University age (when I was in University), did not have broken wings. She was all grown up by 17, I was grown up by 23 maybe? These days? Well let’s just say they didn’t have locks on the windows when we were in residence, for fear we’d fall out.

A big part of my insistance that I am “not your mom”, and “you need to take charge of your own training” is to push students toward being “all grown up now”. I won’t be here forever, students move away from University towns. My students need to be ready to teach on their own by about 10 years since that’s as long as I’ve had any of them. Undergrad and grad school can take that long but rarely longer.

The other part of keeping track of their own progress is that I can’t keep track of my students. Very, very few of them attend every practice. Used to be more, but those days are gone. Shorter attention spans and longer distractions. To be honest, only the Pamurai has made anywhere near 90 percent of the classes in the last ten years. I’m not complaining, and I did the same, but sometimes I pull out the “get a life” thing, (as if I know what that is). She’s leading my life-path. Yet only now, after those ten years, am I starting to put her in the “that’s really pretty” class of 10 or 11 of my students from the time I started teaching. Yes, I’ve got 10 or 11 students I’d compare to anyone I’ve ever seen do martial arts. Half of those I would put in the class “better than me”. OK more than half, the rest of them still don’t believe it and so are not.

So the ones that drop in once a week, disappear for weeks or months, those guys I can’t keep track of very well. Nor do I want to, I don’t need to know that they feel sick today, or depressed, or have a meeting, or have another class or anything else. Family, job, then budo. My life was unbalanced and unfair to my family. So the story they get is not “if you can’t make all the classes don’t bother”, they would disappear, what they get from me is “I don’t mind/care if you’re not at every class, come when you can and I’ll teach you”. I mean it, too. I don’t mind if they miss classes and I’ll teach whoever is there.

I don’t keep records, I simply look at who is in class and teach a little bit ahead of the least trained, and a little bit behind the best in the class. I do teach a range of concepts each class but I don’t point at people very often and say “this is for you!”. Stupid thing to do anyway, at a certain point in training students get REAL sensitive to public criticism. No fault in that, just a stage. So I allow those who “get it” to pick the training I’m hanging out there for them. The beginners are fine, they pick up what they can, the seniors are fine, they only need a kick in the pants once in a while, the rest of the time they know what they have to work on. It’s the ones in the middle that need to learn that they are in charge of their own training.

This isn’t high school. Students don’t have to attend classes and so I don’t have to force feed a curriculum to them. I teach what I want, I teach whoever is in class that day and I teach what I figure most of the class will benefit from. Oh, and I teach what I’m thinking about, I can reconcile all that. My personal training is to take what I’ve got and make something of it. I cook that way, I photograph that way, I make furniture that way.

I teach, students come along with me. If they stick long enough the learn everything I know but perhaps not everything I am capable of learning while teaching them.

Still, I’ve been known to do extra classes on request and I’ve been known to show students just how far they need to go before they get the “secrets”. Even now that last is usually along the lines of “oh you didn’t get out of the way in time? Better practice some more”. The “secret” there? You cannot, absolutely cannot, do a kata and expect to live. It is impossible to let someone come within range and start moving first and expect to win. Can’t be done. (Well, give me the next five years after your first ten, and practice Niten while reading Musashi…. a lot). We’ll see in five years when I’m that much slower and you’re that much “slower”.

There are no secrets. A lot of the teenage-budo thing is resentment at the old man’s refusal to give you the car keys, at sensei’s refusal to tell you the secrets. Everybody wants a shortcut, red sports car means you get laid right? As anyone who has a red sports car will tell you, what it gets you is speeding tickets. The secrets of budo? Show up for class and listen, every piece of instruction is potentially useful to you and some of it is aimed directly at you.

But maybe sensei isn’t pointing a finger and yelling “pay attention”.

Kim Taylor
July 1, 2017

photo 4 (2)

July Niten and Kage seminars:

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