Why do we so commonly have images of our teachers (and their teachers…) as supernaturally skilled? Thinking about my last post and some of the feedback I got led me to think some more about the images I have of my teachers, the stories I have told about them, and, amusingly enough, of some of the stories (sometimes heard second or third hand) my students have told about me. When I think of Kimo, Sakai, Gakiya, Miyagi, Liu, Nagata, or a number of my other teachers or seniors one of the things I consistently remember is the feeling of being completely outclassed. I think many martial artists have similar experiences. Why is that? It certainly supports that trope I discussed in my last post. But in thinking about it, I realized something: we often create these images early in our relationships with people. And when you first walk through the door of a dojo you don’t know anything. You are completely outclassed. In a way that you should not be, at least if the teacher is good, even a couple of years later. But these images are sticky. They maintain. I think that is one reason why we have this trope to begin with. We are struck by how far outclassed we are when we enter the dojo, at a time when we have no training in that art and are looking for something. It is an impressionable moment. Of course we remember our teachers as amazing!
And to add to that, our perception of age changes. I clearly remember being completely outclassed by an old man when I was 18 and starting training. It was like something out of a movie! I came to the dojo from competitive rowing and not being able to keep up with such an old man seemed impossible. Looking back though, that “old man” was in his early 40s. Not so old, though he sure seemed it to my teenage self. And that man was training every day, and had been for decades. So again, the image was formed based on a moment in time. One informed by the perspective of a teenager who had no martial arts training at all. But it was an impressionable moment. And it stuck.
I think a lot of stories of our teachers come from these moments. Starting training, being young, being in an impressionable place. Paying attention to when and how we developed them seems a good idea to me. It might make you reassess these images. For me, doing this has led to a deeper appreciation of the teachers I have had, of how they welcomed me and helped me grow. And of how they demonstrated their ability and knowledge in a way that inspired and drew me in, instead of beat me down. And now, when I remember those of my teachers who have passed, I see them in a more human way. Sure, when we met they could do impossible things. But instead of standing on a pillar and looking down they showed me where the ladder was, and how climbing it wasn’t impossible, just a lot of good hard work. And then they gave me a hand up the first steps.