Aikido Black Belt -- Proud, Grateful Parents
Test that is more Celebration than Examination
Steven W. Gilbert, October 5, 2002
and I are now in Louisville, Colorado because Nate "tested" for
his black belt in Aikido yesterday evening and he invited us.
We're both proud of him, grateful that he wants us here, and
especially grateful that he found this wonderful discipline and community.
Aikido and this particular world-recognized dojo and its teachers
and members have become central to his life.
We believe Aikido, the Boulder dojo, Ikeda Sensei, Jude, Doug, and
some of the others here are among the best things ever in Nate’s life.
of the more advanced members, especially Doug, talked with us about how
much Nate contributes in energy, style, and competence as he has grown
into this group. Nate’s new
black belt signifies how much he is respected, admired, enjoyed, and loved
within this very special community.
the last couple of days we learned that at the Boulder Aikido dojo where
Nate has been “training” for the past five years, a student is told
when to “test” for the next level.
Sometimes, told the night before the event.
“Testing” consists of being invited to the center of the mat by
Ikeda Sensei and then, with a series of partners who have been training at
the dojo, being told to perform in a series of Aikido movements, patterns,
or “fights.” Meanwhile,
many of the people who train and many friends and relatives watch in
put “test” in quotation marks because this process is structured so
that the outcome is almost certain. Ikeda
Sensei was quoted yesterday as saying that rankings are not so important
at this dojo and that “testing” is really more of a celebration than
an examination. Everyone
“passes.” But the
pressure is still great, because each “candidate” is really going
through the final rite of passage associated with progressing to a new
level of skill and membership in the community.
Each candidate receives some praise or criticism (gently offered as
advice for future training), but each has already been recognized as ready
based on many hours each week of “training” – taking classes and
practicing, always with a partner, almost always under the observation of
those who help decide who is ready. That
final decision is entirely Ikeda Sensei’s.
important, Nate was officially recognized as achieving the first level
black belt (there are at least seven) yesterday, and this is considered
the “beginning” of serious study and the acceptance of responsibility
as a respected member of the dojo community and the larger Aikido society.
Nate must now formally register (pay an extra fee) and accept
additional responsibility for participating in the life of the dojo –
including its upkeep. Nate
now has the pass code for unlocking to the dojo.
afternoon we brought Nate to the dojo at 5pm even though the testing
didn’t begin until 7:15pm. Nate
wanted to be early enough to take the 6pm class.
He had already served as teaching assistant in two beginners’
classes taught by Jude for undergraduates at the Naropa Institute. More about those classes later.
As Sally and I set up the video camera and I went for a walk, Nate
changed into his Aikido gear and cleaned the dojo – dusting the shrine
at the front of the workout area and sweeping the entire mat space.
He later told us that he had, along with others who devote much of
their lives to Aikido, many times helped with cleaning and other
maintenance. I’m not
entirely sure of the legal structure, but the black belts act and feel
that they are co-owners of this beautiful and highly functional structure.
had been focusing more and more intensely on his black belt testing as the
date and hour approached – training and teaching more and more hours
each day. By the time his own
test began about 8:30pm, Nate had already been vigorously
teaching/training for more than 4 hours that day.
Cleaning the place was a final step in preparing himself and the
environment for the special event.
began the day with a nice breakfast in Louisville, and then went to the
Naropa Institute’s north campus in Boulder for Jude’s classes.
The room in which the class met is beautifully spare.
It was one of those brilliantly clear Colorado mornings, with lots
of sunlight streaming in large windows on two sides of the room.
Nate and a couple of the students laid down mats and set up a small
Aikido shrine (a photo of the founder of Aikido, a Japanese-style rice
paper room-divider screen, and a few flower petals which Jude placed
lovingly, and respectfully on the floor just beneath the photo.)
introductory Aikido class is offered as one of the options an
undergraduate may take to fulfill the requirement for a Naropa course
related to a spiritual discipline. When
Nate took this course five years ago, it started him on this path.
Yesterday we got to see him help others start along the same path.
He showed them how to tie the belts of their gis before class, he
demonstrated movements with Jude, and he helped individuals and pairs see
how they could improve their own movements and work together.
had asked us to videotape the Naropa class as well as the 6PM dojo class
and the testing. So, we
bought him a video camera as a graduation gift, thinking that he will
probably want to videotape many other Aikido activities in the future, and
that we wouldn’t have to try to remember to bring our camera the next
the evening testing was a wonderful experience, I found the morning
classes even more deeply moving and satisfying.
Jude is truly a gifted teacher, a deeply spiritual person, and
devoted to Nate. Nate has
progressed from being an enthusiastic student in this course to being the
TA and a respected teacher. Every
time I visit one of Nate’s Aikido classes or activities I learn more and
gain new insights into teaching and learning in general.
Watching and listening to the way Jude led the typically extensive
Aikido physical warm-ups while students presented highly personalized
“book reports” was an extraordinary experience.
[What if other teachers had the entire class doing physical
exercises during a book report? What
if board meetings included time for everyone to have a workout together
where people touched and strained in pairs?]
During that same interval, Jude introduced Sally and me to the
she didn’t just announce the unprecedented presence of two old folks in
the corner with a camera. She
described how this was a very special day for Nate, explained about the
testing and invited the students to attend (several did – a further
testimony to how effective Nate has become as a teacher and how admired by
students in that class). She
then used our being there to support Nate’s Aikido work as the lead into
a discussion of the role of parents and ancestors in all of our lives –
and in Aikido. She asked the
students to go beyond the usual introductions when pairing up for Aikido
training during that session. She asked them to introduce their parents and grandparents
–- living or dead, biological or adopted, married or separated.
She asked the students to engage in Aikido mindful of their
historical and familial connections. What a wonderful way to weave together an anomalous visit
with the ideas and practices she makes part of her introductory Aikido
the end of the class many students lingered, continuing to practice some
of the movements (like fights) they had been learning, chatting with each
other and with Nate and Jude – confirming how comfortable they were in
the course and how much they liked being part of it.
almost all the students had departed, Jude sat down with Nate and gave him
a package. She had already
explained that she was very disappointed and frustrated that she had
learned about Nate’s testing for the black belt so late that she
couldn’t cancel a trip that afternoon to a conference in Chicago.
But she wanted to give him a special gift before leaving.
has been Jude’s TA for a couple years now, and he acknowledges her as
one of his two mentors in Aikido. She
talked with Sally and me a little about Nate and told us that they don’t
talk much with each other but they obviously have a deeply loving
together, a student and teacher in Aikido can develop a deep,
multi-dimensional communication and interaction beyond and not dependent
on words. She talked of
Nate’s wonderful qualities as a human being, and his gifts as a teacher
and colleague – especially for the way he helped the students in the
courses they teach together.
never forget how both Nate and Jude looked as they sat on the mat and Nate
unwrapped the package. They
didn’t need to say much then, either.
Inside was Jude’s old black belt.
There is a tradition in Aikido of passing along a belt to a special
student. Receiving that belt from Jude mid-day further confirmed that
Nate’s evening would be more of a celebration than a challenge.
course, the testing went fine! Of
course, to Sally and me, Nate looked more graceful and masterful than
anyone else. Of course, he
and the others being “tested” made some sorts of slips that were
undetectable to us. Nate and
some of his knowledgeable colleagues joked about one of Nate’s as a form
of creativity. He was also
the only one that Ikeda Sensei joked with during the testing –
commenting on Nate’s heavy breathing at the very end of his testing.
But it was obvious that the comment came from someone who knew the
other well enough and lovingly enough to acknowledge the sounds of
complete commitment of energy within a context of demonstrated competence.
was remarkable how silent the large crowd of members and friends was
throughout the entire process. The
only exception was a burst of spontaneous applause after a much-older
“student” successfully handled 5 simultaneous attackers at the end of
his testing for a higher level black belt.
Ikeda Sensei later made a brief joke about how well this man had
done – with his new artificial hip!
day ended, following the testing, with most of the newly-ranked and many
of the other dojo members – and a few family and friend like us –
going together to a restaurant for the highly traditional Aikido ceremony
of sharing beer and Italian food. That
part was enriched by Nate’s Uncle Dave and his friend Patty joining Katy
and Sally and me.
looking forward to a much more relaxed day today, and then a return to DC
tomorrow morning. But we’ll
always remember our October 4, 2002 with Nate in Colorado as one of the
best rewards parents can ever get. We
saw our oldest son happily dripping with the sweat of an all-out effort.
We saw him committed, masterful, loving, well-known, accepted, and
honored within the highly competent, discerning community that he has
chosen – a community of his peers.