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The Lighter Side

Sensei Is Always Right

Years ago that I had a karate sensei (teacher) who was what you might call “hardcore” on etiquette. Whereas in another dojo, if you failed to call a senior sempai, or if you donned a raggedy gi to class you might merely get balled out (a la your mom on a bad day), in our little home-away-from-home you’d actually get clocked in the chops and be given sweeping detail for the next few months (in addition to verbal lambasting).

Well, every cat has his rat (as the French say), and sensei had Steve. You see, Steve just could never remember to bow-in when he entered the dojo. Never.

Week after week, month after month, it went something like this: Steve, classic high school loser (mind, no doubt, on some babe who would sooner be choked out than speak to him), would bebop into the dojo free as a flipping bird, blowing right past sensei seated at the front desk, tossing out a friendly “How ya doing tonight, sensei?”

Whereupon, as may be imagined, the fit would hit the sham. Or, to be plainer, sensei would fly out of his seat faster than those magical monks in those old-school Shaw flicks, bat Steve in his dense head and start screaming him the Budo-version of the Riot Act.

Why couldn’t the guy just remember to bow at the door? Who knew? There was a rumor, however, that Steve’s mom had been a judoka and had practiced right up to the day of his birth.

Well, whatever the reason it just went on that way. It even turned into a dojo-joke, with some of us getting there early just to be sure not to miss the show. Finally, even sensei got sick of the whole thing, and when stunted Steve would sashay in, naturally sans bow, sensei would just grimace and yell, “Get out!” Steve would then thump himself in the head (saving sensei the trouble), mumble lamely, “Oh, forgot!”, and then turn around and come back in properly.

It was a few weeks after the ritual had taken this new, less entertaining, form, that the performance was given a new twist.

It was November, and one of those flash blizzards that New England is infamous for had just descended upon us. It was a clear, black, freezing night, and within 15 minutes there was three inches of snow on the ground. Then another inch, then another. Like most of the students, I had been caught en route, and thought it pointless to turn back. When I arrived there were just a few others there, and we were all wondering if we were going to be able to make it home after class.

Finally, we decided, especially seeing that people were still straggling in, that it would be best just to have practice and hope it would stop by nine o’clock, and maybe the city trucks would be plowing by then. Sensei said we could all just camp out in the dojo if we had to.

Amidst this quick-huddle confusion, in blows “no-bow” Steve (as we had tagged him). Now, maybe the sudden drop in temperature and all that damn snow had somehow enlivened his normally deadened cranial nerves. Or maybe the planets were lined up in some special way… Maybe, just maybe, he had finally come to his senses… Well, whatever it was, I tell you, he opened the door – and bowed! I saw it, and so did a couple of the other guys.

But sensei, what with wondering if he had enough headgears to serve as pillows, didn’t. He just turned, looked at Steve, and yelled, “Get out!”

As alluded to, Steve was not what you might term Ph.D. material, but self-preservative instincts he had. In the dojo, the sensei’s word is law (as the great Urban has written), and to violate the law around here meant getting your clock cleaned. So, Steve got out, and sensei went back to counting headgears.

I looked at my dojo-mates. They looked at me. We all looked at hapless Steve, standing outside the glass door, a blizzard blowing wild all around him. All of us looked back at sensei, now pondering the wisdom of using old copies of Black Belt as bedding material.

Several minutes passed… With sensei still pondering, and Steve still standing. Outside. Freezing. Slowly being buried in snow.

I was the senior student, and so the onus fell to me.

With some hesitation, I walked over. “Ah… Sensei…”

He looked up from the heavybag he had laid lengthwise on the floor. “Yeah, Bob, what is it?” He stood, giving “Old Faithful”, as we called that bag, a friendly slap. “Hold three heads, it will!” he beamed.

“Uh…great…” I said doubtfully. “About Steve…” I gave a discreet backward jerk with my thumb toward the door.

“Oh, he’ll come in when he remembers,” sensei said with an annoyed frown.

“But that’s just it – he did bow!” I whispered.

Sensei looked about as surprised as if I pulled some old-time jujitsu trick on him.

“He did,” I repeated quietly.

With a heavy sigh and dramatic eye-roll, sensei walked over to the front door and gave it a quick, strong pull open. A tremendous blast of cold air, carrying with it a generous helping of snow, flew into the office. Everyone gave a shudder. There was Steve, doing his impression of Frosty-the-Bonehead.

“Steve, what the hell are you doing out there?” sensei boomed.

“I b-bowed, b-but –“ stuttered Steve though numb lips.

Sensei grabbed Steve by the shoulder and yanked him in.

“I know you bowed,” sensei said, giving Steve a steely look. “But you forgot to wipe your feet!”

Contributed by Robert T. Tuohey

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