Secrets and senior classes from Sensei’s point of view

On the way to coffee, no, as I was going to sleep last night, I was trying to remember the one-word key to today’s essay. Then I thought of another and said “I’ll remember that, surely”.

Write stuff down.

But as I was walking, using a cane to relieve my knee and wondering when this shoulder will heal, I thought about senior students. Seeing an earlier essay on senior classes and why juniors don’t need to be there (they still don’t, I haven’t changed my mind), I thought of one more aspect of the situation.

Teacher’s pet, the student who is in the class all the time and the one sensei uses to demonstrate on. In Aikido we used to call this guy the “rag doll”. Have never heard similar for jodo but you can call her “The Pamurai” because that’s my teacher’s pet. Yes I prefer to practice with her, yes other senior students complain that I don’t share it around.

I’M OLD, things hurt. You want to try out things, try them out on each other, I can see it, I can help. Try it out on me and I’m going to get hurt, then I’m going to get short-tempered and will “teach” you what happens next. I have another arm and another leg that still work pretty good. I’ve got a lot of years of “making shite up”. What I don’t have is the ability to absorb a lot of punishment to correct you gently, and I’m damned if I’m going to hurt my students to prove I can still do it.

I’ll work with my pet to demonstrate and you can watch. If I do come over to work with you I’m going to have a specific thing I want you to learn. You’d better have been paying attention because I’m not going to be in the mood to teach it to you if you go off in a different direction and hurt me.

But in the direction I want you learning, you’d better be trying to take my head off.

Does that sound easy? Does that sound like (to go back to the earlier essay on senior classes) like I want a lot of beginners standing around to watch you and I fumble and get hit on the head? Or that I want a lot of lip from the beginners that “know stuff”? I’m sure as blazes not going to demonstrate the same thing one by one to the whole class. The senior I just taught something can do that… if they got it. If you, as a beginner just distracted them with some irrelevant or ignorant (in the un-knowing sense of the word) comment, I may wander away thinking I’ll teach that point another day. Beginners, a reminder that you usually don’t know enough to help, so don’t. Watch and learn instead.

As for the teacher’s pet, you think the Pamurai is getting special treatment? She is. She’s there every class and teaches her own classes, and she’s good at it. She’s still teachable, so she gets taught whenever I get the chance to teach her.

Does that mean she’s got smooth sailing? No. In a word, no. She has her own problems, one of them is that she’s still not good at reading my mind, another is that she really, really tries not to hurt me. It’s part of the arrangement, being teacher’s pet, you don’t hurt teacher.

Except when he figures you should, and he’s not going to tell you, he’s just going to get mad that you aren’t swinging for his head, or you’re slowing down your swing and his block just missed. So you come in like a freight train next time and he gets mad because you ran him over and he was trying to show the class some subtle point about distance.

Or you figure you know this one, sensei wants to show this thing… and you’re wrong, you guessed wrong. Now he’s mad again.

Being teacher’s pet is learning to be psychic, paying attention big time, to the point where you sometimes miss the point and have to ask someone else what the heck-fire sensei was just talking about. When I’m demonstrating with the Pamurai I am not teaching her. I am using what she knows to teach other people what she knows.

I was one of a couple of rag dolls for my Aikido sensei. Not the only one, but I was used often enough to figure I knew something. This made me pretty annoying to the rest of the class. Being teacher’s pet can be harmful to you, it can lead you to believe you “know stuff”. If you don’t stay teachable, if you don’t stay humble, you will stall out.

Pay attention, just because you’ve got sensei’s ear, doesn’t mean you’ve got his ability. Just because you do stuff for him, doesn’t mean you get to speak for him. Just because you knew the point he was about to make for the class doesn’t mean you know what he wants to do next week.

Sure it’s worth it to be the rag doll, to be teacher’s pet, you feel what is being shown, not just see it, and that’s good stuff, but sensei’s not the only one in the room that can make you feel stuff. Pay attention to your partner instead of the image in your head of what sensei just showed. You can’t look over there and see what’s happening over here.

There are students out there with the ego to think that only sensei can teach them. Big mistake, sensei teaches you every time he teaches anyone in class while you are in class. Any one of sensei’s students who has been around longer or more than you have can teach you stuff. If you only want sensei to teach you, if you only want to watch sensei demonstrate the kata…. look, if you want me to show you the perfect seitei iai kata you’re going to be waiting a VERY LONG TIME. I’m going to tell the Pamurai to show you. I expect you to watch her and learn because her knees still work. Mine don’t.

If you are thinking about Aikido, or partner kata, have faith that when you’ve been in class for enough classes in a row, when you’ve managed to catch up to your actual ability, your sensei may just wander over and ask you to do something beyond your current ability. In some cases (if you’re senior enough) that means sensei will be injuring himself to get to the point where he can push you without hurting you. Don’t waste it. Don’t ask sensei to show you four times, that’s four injury cycles.

That’s asking sensei to hand it to you, expecting him to drop the treat into your open little mouth like you’re a baby bird in a nest. Your mouth better be open, you’d better be ready to catch it because sensei may not throw it to you more than once.

The rest of you, were you watching? If you were working on something else while sensei was teaching a senior you may as well go next door. You aren’t serious about learning. Were you talking with your buddy? Getting some water? Scratching your backside?

No problem, sensei doesn’t mind, but don’t complain if you never, ever get a little visit and get dropped onto that backside before you can start to resist. Sensei may not be able to catch your attention so he’ll move along to someone else who seems to be ready for a little private instruction.

“Senior” is not the same as rank. Rank is simple, do what you’re told, show it, have the right sponsor (a word in the ears of the panel), the right location (oh, we need some need rank there in the hinterlands / foreign country), the right students (lots), be the guy who organizes stuff, do whatever it takes and you get some paper. Hooray! That doesn’t make you a senior. That doesn’t make you teacher’s pet.

A while ago someone told me about a martial art that was passed from teacher to one student for generations. I can’t re…. ah, it was Jushin Ryu iai, the original art of Hayashizaki Jinsuke, founder of iaido. In that case it was passed from one teacher to one student since 1600 something. That would be 15 or 20 generations. Lucky! Now apparently someone has said that’s risky (really? ya think?) and so there are more students.

That one teacher, one student idea is sort of what we’re talking about with “teacher’s pet”. That one student who stays with sensei longest, who is his partner longest, who shows up at every class, will eventually be “senior” in the real sense of the word (as opposed to “if you’re an X-dan you’re a senior, if you’re a Y-dan you are an assistant instructor”). That student who works with sensei and is in every class for 20 years, is going to be the one who has the most of what sensei has to teach.

We can argue about how much that is. Lots of students go off to other sensei to learn what they are convinced their sensei doesn’t know. That won’t make them a senior student of their sensei because, I’m sorry to say, part time students don’t know what sensei actually knows. Students who don’t go to other sensei but also don’t go to every class won’t know all that sensei knows. They won’t even know everything that sensei has taught.

Students who go to every class that sensei teaches will know a lot of what sensei knows. Teacher’s pet might know a bit more. Students who are at every class may end up being one of teacher’s pets too.

One teacher, one student. Many teachers, one student. Many students, many teachers, one teacher, many students. You create the combinations, what matters in the end?

Could it be the number of classes you attend, the number of practices you do? Could it be that “senior classes”, and “private classes”, and sensei demonstrating with you, and what have you, gradings, tournaments, demonstrations…

Could it be just a matter of how many hours you spend doing this stuff?

You tell me.

In the meantime, if we have a senior class and you’re not “eligible”, don’t ask to come, just ask the seniors what you need to know.

They’ll tell you.

Kim Taylor
July 1, 2018

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