The message of O-Sensei


His name - Timer - seemed so strange where he lived that he usually went by Tim to make things easier for everyone. Alas, it didn’t sound as good as a proud “Timer” with the stress on both syllables and sounded way too timid for such a tall, strong, and handsome twenty year old guy as he was.

Timer was the best student in his little Aikido dojo, one step away from the black belt. He liked to come to the dojo early, before everyone else, to have some time alone with himself and contemplate in the echoing silence of the empty hall. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t get enjoy the silence anymore for he had no longer been the only early bird in the dojo. Two weeks ago his sensei accepted that newcomer, Alex, an ungainly, clumsy fellow, but extremely eager to learn. The worst combination ever.

Alex quickly developed a habit of coming to the dojo even earlier than Timer did. Once there, he put on his ugly second hand kimono, tied his belt with a lopsided knot, and began practicing the falls. Each loud thud that accompanied his every fall echoed in the empty hall at least thrice. After two weeks of the non-ceasing torture Timer had already been close to losing his temper. The new guy must have felt it for he always stayed as far away from the star student as possible.

The only thing Alex had learned since he joined the dojo was how to properly place his flip-flops by the door and how to bow to the portrait of O-Sensei before the training session. Things like tying a decent knot on his belt and learning which side to step to when doing ten-kan were the still too hard for poor Alex.

That day Timer had been in an especially foul mood, so the endless thuds, shuffling, and sniffing annoyed him more than usual. He needed a break. He needed some peace and quiet! So he got up and went outside through the back door. The rusty metal stairs squeaked under his feet when he stepped on them, but otherwise there was no noise. The tiny platform behind the backdoor overlooked a sad landscape of a grey windowless wall spotted here and there with the splashes of old white paint. Quite a view…

After Timer had returned to the hall, his nerves calmed down, his temper under control again, he found Alex seated in the center of the tatami, waiting for him.

“Where’s everyone?” the newcomer asked.

His voice was the same yet different. Something was wrong, but Timer couldn’t put his finger on it.

“It’s too early…” he said.
“Then let’s begin without them,” replied Alex in a serene tone. “Come here and attack me.”

Timer shrugged, approached the newcomer and attacked him, very carefully, ready to stop the blow any moment (that he would need to stop, he had no doubts). But, surprisingly, he didn’t have to! Alex followed Timer’s movement with a masterful elegance and precision, then used Timer’s own force to throw him on the tatami.

Timer sprang to his feet, completely astonished.

“Attack me again.” Alex smiled as he said that. The smile was subtle, kind, and so strangely familiar… The very smile that the portrait of O-Sensei had!

Timer attacked again, and again. He tried every move he knew. Alex amazed him every time. Was he a master disguising himself as a newcomer? It didn’t matter. Timer enjoyed every second of the show. He couldn’t even remember when he had been that happy last time. Probably years ago when he had just joined the dojo himself...

Then they changed roles, it was Alex’s time to attack and Timer’s to defend himself. The star student, one step away from the black belt, he had suddenly realized how poor his technique actually was compared to Alex’s.

“No, not like this,” Alex corrected him with a warm smile. “Here, I’ll show you…” And show he did, explaining every move patiently over and over again.

Timer was too thrilled to notice they had no longer been alone in the dojo. The other students had arrived and now stood there and watched them with wide eyes. What surprised Timer the most were the tears rolling down his sensei’s cheeks.

“O-Sensei has visited us,” he said. “He is looking at us with the boy’s eyes”.

It was Alex’s finest hour. Students hadn’t left him alone even after the training was over. He walked home surrounded by the crowd of happy fans. That night everyone wanted to be his friend.

The next day the dojo had been full of people by the time Alex came. Everyone was so excited! Several students brought video cameras with them.

Alex entered the hall, bowed, carefully placed his flip-flops by the door… Everyone looked at him, intently, with bated breath. He felt uneasy. Did he do something wrong? Did he forget some important part of the greeting ritual? Was the knot on his belt especially ugly today? Maybe the patch on his kimono was torn off again?

The bitter disappointment grew with every passing second… People watched their yesterday’s idol fall with a loud thud. One, two, three clumsy, loud falls in a row… Some still didn’t believe. They approached Alex with a respectful bow, asked him to teach them this move or that, but he just stared at them, a helpless, frightened newcomer… He had no memories of yesterday at all.

Alas, no miracle repeats itself twice.

Sensei began the training session. The students split into pairs. As usual, Alex was too shy to approach anyone first. Timer gave the kid a long, thoughtful look. Something stirred in the star student’s heart then. He waved his partner to follow him and they approached Alex together.

“You’ve got no partner today?” he asked in a friendly tone that would actually fit Tim more than Timer. “Come on, join us, we’ll show you a couple of tricks.”

That day Tim and his partner spent all their training time with the clumsy boy. His progress had been painfully slow. Teaching him to perform the basic moves was like teaching an alphabet to a toddler. They didn’t complain, though. They didn’t feel like they were wasting their time. No. They felt something very different: a warm glow under their hearts akin to a neverending sincere gratitude expressed without words.

O-Sensei wouldn’t have bothered to visit the mortal world just to show his followers a couple of moves. His message was much more important than that.

It had been heard. And understood.

(September 4, 2004)

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English is not my native language.
If you see an error or a typo, please, tell me. I will fix it.