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Nate’s Aikido Black Belt -- Proud, Grateful Parents

A Test that is more Celebration than Examination

Steven W. Gilbert, October 5, 2002

Sally 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.

Several 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. 

In 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 silence.

I 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.

Most 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.

Yesterday 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. 

Nate 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.

We 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.)

This 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.

Nate 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 time! 

While 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 class. 

But 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 course!

At 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.

When 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. 

Nate 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 relationship.  Training 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.

I’ll 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.

Of 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.

It 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!

The 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.

We’re 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.