At the Dojo

At first, everything was about the teacher: whether he really thought Gary was a better martial artist than Philip, or whether he thought Gary was too slow; whether he really thought Paula was right about how to run the front desk, or Lupe, or whether he couldn't care less.

Every six months the teacher would call a meeting where he would sit on his zafu and announce: "You're not getting it. Aikido is a martial art. We are trying to learn how to harmonize. Harmony is not the same thing as the absence of conflict. I can't explain this to you. You've got to figure it out."

Most of the students in the circle around him would squirm on their zafus and nod, each trying to look as though he or she were right on the edge of a breakthrough. A few of them thought this philosophy stuff was new age crap. But they never said that out loud.

Lupe once overheard the teacher telling Paula that he didn't think Gary or Philip was ever going to get it. She wondered why Paula was the one he told. Did he think that Paula was getting it? Paula came out of his office with her ponytail drooping. "He said nobody here gets it. He said that maybe Americans just can't." Lupe was relieved.

Then Gary broke Philip's elbow. The noise -- the bone cracking, Philip howling, and Gary vomiting at the sight of torn flesh and a protruding white shard -- scattered everyone to the edge of the mat, except for Gary, Philip, and the teacher, who huddled in the middle in a gory tableau, Philip clinging to the canvas like a scab until the paramedics came to peel him away. Afterwards, Gary worked at the mat with towels and hydrogen peroxide until every drop of blood had been bubbled out of it. Instead of a stain, a patch that was a shade too white was left to mark the spot.

The elbow never worked again, but Philip came back. He paid his monthly dues and he trained with one arm.

After that, nothing was about the teacher any more.

Gary became insufferably good. New students, students who arrived API -- "After the Philip Incident" -- regarded him with stunned admiration when he spent three hours helping them learn how to do back rolls correctly or offered them rides home after class, no matter how far out of his way they might live. Old students -- the BPI crowd -- observed the same behavior with varying degrees of suspicion, condescension, and sympathy. One student who wasn't very interested in getting it called Gary "the martyr" behind his back. (Almost everyone else thought this was in poor taste.)

Once in a while an API student would ask about Philip's elbow. If they asked him directly, he would say that he'd been injured in an aikido accident during a class when he'd been moving just a bit too slowly. The student's eyes would widen, because even with one ruined arm, Philip moved very, very fast. Philip would never say who he'd been working with at the time, and the API student would come away with a vague impression that it had happened at some kind of seminar that had taken place at some other dojo.

A student who happened to ask Gary about Philip's elbow, on the other hand, would be treated to an act of contrition.

Once, a very new student -- one of the ones who couldn't even do a back roll yet -- asked the teacher about it. The teacher looked away, saying, "You need to be very careful. You need to understand that no teacher is perfect." That student began spreading a rumor that the teacher had broken Philip's elbow, until Gary found out about it and took the student into a corner for a brief, unpleasant chat.

It was when the teacher promoted Philip to second-degree black belt without promoting Gary that things became really strange. Philip got extra depressed, and Gary started slapping him on the back all the time. The teacher would stay in his office until classes started, and afterwards he would change his clothes faster than everyone else and rush out before Gary or Philip or Lupe could get to the door to hand him his shoes. Philip would slump against the window and watch the teacher's tail lights disappear down the street. Lupe would bustle around behind the front desk, counting stamps. Gary would usually slip quietly out the back door, unless he thought anyone needed a ride home.

Eventually, one of the API students complained that Philip had been promoted just because he was crippled, even though Gary had explained that it was because Philip was so goddamned courageous, and that, besides, Philip's one-armed aikido was actually pretty good.

The teacher called a meeting. He glared at the circle around him and said, "You people are not figuring this out. I'm so tired. Harmony is not the same thing as the absence of conflict."

Gary hid his face in his hands.

Then the teacher disappeared. Nobody knew what to do when he didn't show up on Monday night, so the students milled around on the mat for a while, warming up, hoping that the teacher would sweep through the door and explain what had kept him so long.

But he didn't.

Everything was about the teacher again: whether he would have wanted Philip to do the teaching, or Gary, or both, or nobody; whether he had left town without telling anyone to teach them all some kind of lesson, or because maybe he was starting to lose it.

On Tuesday night, Philip and Gary taught classes, one hour each. Philip went first. They did the same thing on Wednesday. On Thursday, half of the people didn't show up for Philip's class, but everyone came to Gary's. This happened again on Friday. Philip said he didn't care, but Gary was pissed off, so on Saturday night they switched hours. Some of the students who showed up for Gary's class and found Philip teaching instead didn't even bother to change their clothes. They just went home. Philip still said he didn't care, but Lupe heard him crying in the bathroom after everyone else had left.

On Sunday the dojo was closed, as always.

The following Monday, the teacher came back and called Paula into his office to tell him what had happened while he was gone. Lupe stood outside the door and tried to listen, wondering why Paula was the one he had asked. Paula came out with her mascara all smeared, like she might have been crying a little. This time, she wouldn't tell Lupe what the teacher had said.

A couple of weeks later, the teacher quit and moved back to Japan to take care of his elderly mother.

The dojo got a newer, younger, meaner teacher, who never called meetings to talk about harmony and conflict and who made it clear that he liked the way that Paula ran the front desk and that he thought Gary's ukemi was too slow. Some of the students found the new teacher scary at first, but after a couple of weeks they stopped thinking about him at all, one way or the other.

During the summer, most of the students drifted away from the school, except for Gary and Philip and Lupe and Paula. The new people who joined up in the fall didn't even notice the thing about Philip's elbow.

One day, Lupe said, "You know, I don't think our old teacher was really very good."

"There's no such thing as a really good teacher," Philip told her.

Gary clapped him on the back.

Lupe was pretty sure those guys weren't getting it.

About the author:

Danielle LaVaque-Manty has a black belt in aikido. But that has nothing to do with this story.