Boy, talk about controversy. Here I was thinking maybe all of five people in the whole world read my blog and then when I posted a frustrated piece about dummies walking into my dojo, I got a whole slew of comments, arguments and replies, positive and negative. That took me off guard, not so much because some people disagreed with my blog…after all, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion…but because there was so much discussion about it.
So I’m raking the leaves in my yard this morning and thinking about it, and maybe my blatant description and frustration with bad behavior from prospective students isn’t getting through. So let me tone down the heat, cool my jets, and use a metaphor that just hit me in explaining why some people, in my eyes, don’t get it.
Trying to join a koryu is not like walking into a Burger King and being able to have it your way as long as you pay your money. It’s more like a job interview.
Sure, the koryu can seem snobby and elitist compared to most modern budo schools. That’s just how it may seem. And so one might consider my own attitude to be snobby and elitist. Maybe. On the other hand, I’ve never turned away students like how some of my cohorts have. I’ve taken in folk who stumble when walking, who are still working on basics after ten years of training, who had tattoos up and down their entire bodies below their neckline, who had no prior background at all in any martial art. I’ve even taken in an elementary school-aged student, even though my stated policy is not to do so, because I knew the father and he begged me to let the kid in.
In my own way, I tend towards the attitude one of my former teachers had. Quintin Chambers sensei was a gentleman truly of the old school, educated at Oxford in England, trained in modern budo and koryu in Japan. I asked him once about why he let in some people who I thought were really a couple quarts short of normal, and he replied that outside of the criminally insane or simply weird, he felt that he should give anyone wishing to join a chance. They pretty much weeded themselves out anyway, he said, and the ones who aren’t serious to begin with usually drop out quickly to join something flashier and more upbeat. It’s just natural attrition.
However, I myself do temper my entrance requirements, and in my earlier article I railed on about people who come into the practice room thinking we owe them, carrying on with bad manners and an inflated self-worth.
Lest my prior article sound that snobby, I know fellow koryu teachers in the West who are even more stringent than I am. One teacher, in 20 years of teaching, has only taken on one deshi. He’s turned away everyone else because they didn’t fit his requirements. Another will tell you that if you have tattoos visible outside of a keikogi, you either have to hide them somehow or have them removed. Period. If you don’t like, there’s the door and don’t let it slam your butt on the way out. Still another teacher will simply refuse to teach people who had aikido training. He himself was a high ranking aikidoka, but he once told me that when he took in a couple of aikido students into his koryu school, they kept “moving like they were doing aikido,” not like they were doing his koryu. He gave them a couple months to change their body dynamics and attitudes. They didn’t or couldn’t. He kicked them out and for a while he didn’t care that he didn’t have any students at all. Then through word of mouth, he slowly assembled a new cadre of students, most of whom have had competitive grappling or law enforcement training. These were physically tough guys you wouldn’t want to confront in a dark alley even without koryu training. They moved more “realistically” he said, more like what his particular ryu demanded.
Do I think they’re more snotty and elitist than me? Nope. They’re the teachers. They make the rules and if you don’t like it, hey, there’s a different dojo down the street. They’re not into building up martial arts empires. They are into passing on a very specialized koryu system only to people who they think are worth their time and effort, because life is too short for them to be teaching some prima donnas or people who will drop out when the going gets just a little too tough.
So anyway, I’m raking the leaves and my dog is begging me to play with her by holding a squeaky toy in her mouth, and it dawned on me. …I thought of a great metaphor:
There are some modern budo schools and a whole lot of koryu schools in which joining is less like paying your money and then expecting some kind of service, and more like applying for a job. …And you may not necessarily get the job even if you wanted it.
You see, as much as you think you want to get something out of training in a koryu, becoming a part of a koryu means you must shoulder some responsibilities of being part of a living, breathing legacy, and not disgracing that legacy and that school. As much is expected of you as you might be expecting of the training.
That is why, when you present yourself, it’s really important to put your best foot forward, like it’s a job interview. …Because you really are being scrutinized to see if you are a good fit for the ryu.
So the father and son who got me ballistic because they horsed around and showed a lack of attention? Of course I had a bad impression of them. If it was a job interview and the kid came in and started playing noogie noogie on my head or tried to fool around with my computer before I could even ask him questions about his education or work experience, I would have shown him out the door without even a fare-thee-well.
Or what about the person who came in to observe a class and instead spent half the time stretching out and demonstrating his front kicks to impress me? …Would you do that in a job interview? Would you play with your cell phone or Nintendo while the interviewer was trying to explain the job responsibilities?
The latter person came up to me after class ended, full of self-confidence, asking about joining the class. I gave him the particular information, and then he asked about how often we gave promotion tests, because, of course, he saw no problem in learning things quickly because he was sooooo good at it. I replied that in a really old koryu, there are no “tests.” The teacher trains with you so intensely, one-on-one, that he KNOWS how good you are, he doesn’t have to give you a test to find out. You get your rank when the teacher thinks you deserve it. That was the first of several replies that threw him for a loop, but he still insisted that he was going to join us from the next class because he thought he could get a “black belt” in no time at all.
In both cases, after they left, I turned to my students and said, “I’ll bet you guys good money that he/they won’t come back again.”
And you know, they didn’t. So why waste my time and their time trying to encourage such people to join my class when they aren’t really a good fit anyway?
On the other hand, there was a gentleman who showed up at the same time as the father and son. He asked to observe the class, we talked a bit and he said that he had only a limited background in martial arts. He “wasn’t that good.” That was so unlike the father and son, who touted their aikido and kendo training, who said they didn’t have any questions because they knew all they needed to know, and so on. The father and son fooled around with applying joint locks on each other when they saw us working through some jujutsu kata. The other guy simply sat quietly, intently watching us train. At the end, the father and son just bagged. They walked out the door laughing and still horsing around like two kids. The other gentleman came up to me and asked very good questions about time, tuition, affiliation, and so on. He asked if he could join, and when I said he could, he asked about a training outfit.
Of all the examples, he was the only who subsequently showed up to train, and he’s still training as of this date. So not only did he show the right attitude, he had the right intent, and his attitude was on display because he presented himself as if he was asking for a job, not demanding a right to train like you would demand how done your hamburger is at Burger King. He realized that he had no God-given right to join, he had to ask and I had to allow admittance, just like a job interviewer sums you up from your interview and your resume.
Later, I found out that his “limited background” in martial arts really meant several years’ worth of a very rough and tough system. He wanted to do martial arts again, after dropping it to get a busy, demanding job and raise a family, but couldn’t go back to his old system where sparring would be so bad that sometimes people had to miss work because they were injured so badly. We were a lot less accident-prone, perfect for his needs, and he is perfect for us because he brings a maturity and natural athletic ability that helps to raise the bar for the rest of the students. He brings as much to the class, or even more, than what we can possibly teach him, and for that I’m grateful for him, as I am for each of my students, no matter their particular athletic abilities.
He realized joining a martial arts school is not a Constitutional right; it’s a privilege that he had to be worthy of, and he carried himself appropriately.
If that attitude and expectation of prospective students is elitist and snobby, then I am proud to be guilty as charged.