The most rewarding part of writing this blog has been the feedback from my students. Some of them have studied with me for almost thirty years. I teach the internal martial arts of Tai Chi, Paqua, and Hsing Yi. My students are learning new things about me because, over the years, I've rarely talked about the other martial arts I've studied.
Last week, I wrote about the new dojo I joined, which was located on the fourth floor of a building in Hamilton. There was no air conditioning in the dojo and heat rises, so it was very hot and humid on summer nights. The only possibility of air movement came from the double, floor-to-ceiling windows at the far end of the training room. There were no other windows to open to create a cross breeze, so the air was stagnant.
I don't know what it's like now, but back in those days, the pollution level was consistently high. The two major employers in Hamilton, Stelco and Dofasco, were steel manufacturers. In karate, we train with our bare feet. Even though the floor was swept before each class, by the end of class the soles of my feet would be black from the soot. I hate to imagine what we were breathing in.
At the beginning and end of training sessions, students line up from right to left, in declining order of rank. When I first joined the dojo, I was the lowest ranking student on the floor. This meant that I stood at the far left end of the line. This also happened to be the position closest to the double, floor-to-ceiling windows.
For some reason, during every training session, the entire group would gradually shift to the left. I did my best to hold my position because of my proximity to the window. Inevitably, as each session went on, I could see and feel the group moving toward me, crowding my space.
I always kept an eye on the window. Many times, I could see the street below and it made me feel a little queasy. I would try to catch Sensei's eye, to let him know I was too close to the window. He was usually aware of this and would tell the group to shift their position back to the right.
Occasionally, he was so focused on the lesson that he didn't see my precarious position. I would step back, out of line, and stand in the corner, watching the group drift towards the window. Eventually, my lack of activity would catch Sensei's attention, and he'd instruct the group to move.
As I increased in rank, I moved to the right in the line-up. This meant I was physically further away from the window. In the martial arts, we're taught to have compassion for those of a lower rank, because we know what they're going through since we've already been there. For this reason, I kept an eye on the lower-ranking students to my left...and the window.
Getting to my car after class meant walking through an alley to get to the parking lot. Most nights, I'd walk with other students. Some nights, I'd walk alone. On those nights, I was consciously aware of my surroundings. That's why I was surprised. I heard footsteps and looked back to see two men behind me as I was about a third of the way into the alley. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I knew they were following me.
The red flag was that I had not seen them on the street before I entered the alley. It was as though they had come out of nowhere, which was impossible. They had watched me enter the alley and then followed me. I knew I had been targeted.
I let on that I wasn't concerned with their presence. I didn't change the speed of my gait, as I knew that would trigger their prey drive. If I'd shown fear or ran, the chase would have been on.
As I walked, the words of my ju-jitsu sensei, from years before, came back to my mind. "When you have to deal with more than one attacker, never let them surround you. Keep moving so they are on one side of you." That's what I did. One tried to get on my right side, and the other tried to get on the left. Using my peripheral vision, while I listened to the sound of their footsteps, I positioned myself so the two of them were either on my right or left side.
I continued walking, not knowing how it would turn out. I had almost reached the parking lot when I heard a different sound. I turned to see them running down the alley, away from me. I'll never know why they gave up their pursuit. Perhaps it was the confusion at having a plan that didn't work out as they had intended.
To any martial arts sensei who happens to read this, know that every lesson you teach your students is important. It will enter their mind at a moment when they need it the most. It could be many years later. It may be years after they are no longer your student. The time isn't important. It's the lesson that matters.
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.