The other day I heard a rumour: an ex-student said that I should never have been asked to teach, and hinted that I didn’t deserve my black belt.
I should say, before going on, that the student in question was never my student. He was a student in my dojo years ago. He may or may not have observed my teaching; I have no idea.
A few years ago, a comment like this would have pained me. And it does. But not much. Since turning fourty (yup), criticism bothers me less than it used to. I worry less about what people think. Maybe it’s because of the proverbial onset of middle-age and its fallout. I can’t help but think that I’m probably halfway through my life (with any luck I’ll live as long as my French grandmother, who at the age of ninety-two continues to live at home, wear heels, and apply orange-red lipstick – but who knows?). Having a sister with special needs has always made me experience a higher-than-average sense of mortality, which has increased as I get older. A passage comes to mind, from one of Anne Lamott’s books, where she asks a friend if her butt looks big in a dress she’s trying on. Her friend (I can’t find the passage, but I seem to recall that she’s ill and that she wears a headscarf to hide the effects of chemotherapy) says: “Annie, you really don’t have that kind of time.”
I do, however, consider criticism, the way a scientist might consider lab results. In this case, I thought about why someone would make a comment like that. “Jealousy,” my friends told me. “Definitely jealousy.” Maybe. Maybe not.
I considered the merits of the statement. No question that, in our school’s taxonomy, I’m a junior black belt. I’ve been training for about fifteen years (split up into two segments, which were separated by six years) while others have been training for twenty-five. Ten years equals a huge number of practicing hours. There’s no question that I have a long way to go before attaining the kind of skill belonging to senior black belt students. I have a lot to learn. And, frankly, we all have a lot to learn. Plus there are some things that I’m just not good at. I’m terrible at rolling, for example (although recently I’ve been getting better as a result of practicing in the local ravine. Last week a dog thought my rolling was an invitation to play, and came to me wagging his tail, begging to join in).
My co-instructor rolls extremely well. He makes a kind of game out of it: As he walks, he sing-songs to himself: “lalala, I’m just walking along….” (I love this) And then he rolls. A beautiful move. It’s the kind of roll where you barely touch the ground and at the end of it you hop up as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. I can’t do this kind of roll. As I said, I have a lot to learn.
Which brings me to a question I’ve pondered for a long time. Should a sensei promote someone based on their abilities or on their potential? My first sensei used to do both. Sometimes, I would watch someone’s promotion test, and I would think, “hunh, that person doesn’t seem ready to receive his blue belt (or purple, brown, or black belt).” A few weeks later, that person would demonstrate a kata and, low and behold, she looked like a blue belt (or purple, brown, or black belt). That sensei seemed to anticipate when a student was nearly ready to acquire the next belt level; it was uncanny. I love this approach. It slots nicely into my philosophy regarding how we should relate to others. For shouldn’t we always perceive people in terms of their best selves?
Which brings me to the question of whether I deserve my black belt. When I first received it, I didn’t think so. Now, after three additional years of practice, I do. And in any case, isn’t a black belt not a state but rather, an attitude—that is, of self-reflection and of dedication to self-improvement?
I consider myself a good teacher. I don’t always have perfect technique, but I’m pretty good at breaking things down for my students. Occasionally, I might even be funny. I like to think of the words of a parent in Pamela Druckerman’s book Bringing Up Bébé, that, “overall, I’m good enough.”
And really, when it comes to taking criticism to heart, I just don’t have that kind of time.
You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t been blogging for a while. I’ve been finishing writing my book, a collection of short stories entitled This One Because of the Dead. Yesterday, I finished a substantive revision of my last story! Only some fine-tuning left. You can read some of these stories online: