As usual, I arrived early at the dojo. I looked around and was surprised that Sensei wasn't there. That was unusual. He was always there. I hoped he was running late.
As the start time for class approached, I realized he wasn't coming. The senior black belt on the floor was in charge. He told us to line up, which we did. After the formal class opening, we spread apart on the dojo floor, ready for the warm-up exercises.
The senior black belt stood at the front of the room, facing us. Rather than start the class, he took it upon himself to share an opinion that he felt strongly about. He said, "Women don't belong in a dojo. They belong at home, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen."
At first, I thought I hadn't heard him right. Then I thought he might be joking. His body language said otherwise. His clenched fists were firmly planted on his hips. His shoulders were hunched up just below his ears. His scowling face was beet red as he glared at me.
Since I was the only woman in the dojo, it was clear that his message was meant for me. There was dead silence in the room. You could have heard a pin drop.
Before I continue with what happened, let me share a bit of my backstory. I grew up with two brothers, in a neighborhood full of boys. The worst insult you could give someone was, "You're acting like a girl!" I hurled that insult as often and as loudly as anyone else did. It was a sink or swim situation. I learned to swim.
When I was in high school, I thought it would be useful to take the automobile mechanics course as an elective. Although I wasn't driving yet, one day I would, and having a basic understanding of how a car works made sense. When I told my father I was taking the course, he laughed and said, "Girls can't take auto mechanics."
So, I registered for the class. Including myself, there were three young women in the class. I was the only one who completed the course, with the second-highest mark in the class. To my father's credit, he never again told me I couldn't do something because I was a 'girl'.
As an aside, the auto mechanics teacher declared a competition during one class. He was always doing things like that, where you could earn extra marks. During this particular class, we each had to dismantle and then reassemble a differential. All we had to go by was a picture of one that was dismantled and labeled.
As I took it apart, I laid it out exactly as it was in the picture. I finished and put my hand up. The teacher came over, looked at what I'd done, and verified that the differential was dismantled. As I reassembled it, I kept visually referring to the picture. When I was done, I put my hand up again. The teacher came over and verified that I had properly reassembled it.
I had been focusing on the task at hand and ignored what everyone else was doing. Now I looked around and saw a room filled with chaos and mayhem. There were parts strewn everywhere. Some had their parts mixed up with other people's parts. And to make matters worse, the teacher had a rule that if you used profane language, he deducted marks. A lot of marks were deducted that day. And, I was the second person in the class who completed the task.
Back to the dojo. The senior black belt stood glaring at me. I'd dealt with his old world view, of women and their place in society, many times in the past. Like water on a duck's back, his words rolled off me. Besides, I wasn't there for him. I was there for me.
I'm not sure what he expected me to do. Cry? Breakdown and run out of the room? There was a fat chance of that happening. Instead, I stood still and calmly stared him in the eyes. That seemed to fuel his anger.
It was a staring stand-off. I could wait him out. If need be, I'd stand there for the entire class. Besides, at some point, he had a class to teach. The onus was on him. After what felt like an eternity, and was probably only ten to fifteen seconds, he broke his stare and looked away. The class resumed.
I put a little more energy into my workout that night. His behavior had the opposite of his intended effect. I was more determined than ever to continue training in that dojo.
I never said a word to anyone about that night, not even to the sensei. I saw it as one more challenge in life that I had to meet head-on and overcome. I was a member of that dojo for three and a half years. Over time, the senior black belt was civil to me. I guess he accepted that I wasn't going away. I was always as polite and respectful to him as I needed to be. Nothing more and nothing less.
That was over thirty-five years ago. I am still a member of the same martial arts organization, and I belong in the dojo.
I'm also a good cook in the kitchen.
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.