karate instructor as (ugh) role model

Posted on: Wed, 04/06/2011 - 17:26 By: Tom Swiss

I was out for my usual Wednesday run this morning when I passed two women out walking a dog (a Bull Terrier, cousin to Spuds Mackensie). As I passed, one of them said, "Are you Sensei Tom?" I turned around to see that one of them was the mother of one of my students, a boy who started training a few weeks ago. We chatted for a few seconds as I ran in place, and as I took off up the hill I said, "Tell him you saw me out exercising!"

Every once in a while, it's driven home to me that as a karate instructor, I'm in some ways a (horrors!) role model for my students, especially the kids. For example, a few years ago I was at the annual Seido Karate benefit tournament at Hunter College in New York. A tournament like that is hours of waiting around with nervous energy, punctuated by a few minutes of furious effort. At one point, during the hours in between my events, I was walking down a hallway munching on a pear when I walked by a mother and her son, both fairly new students (blue belts, if I recall correctly).

Now, in Seido Karate people of yondan rank and above get to wear slightly fancier gis, with the kanji for Seido and for their title (Renshi, Kyoshi, and so on) embroidered on, rather than a sewn-on patch, so even though I didn't know these people they knew I had a bit of rank in the organization. Usually, that doesn't mean much; I still have some vague discomfort about the whole hierarchical ranking thing. (When I stop and think that I've now reached the same rank as my first instructor, Sensei Neal Pendleton, and compare my skills and exploits with his -- forget it. I should just go put on a white belt. But that's a rant for another time.)

But on this occasion as I -- a genuine and authorized Karate Instructor, in a Black Belt with a couple of extra hash marks on it -- walked by eating a piece of fruit, the mother turned to her son and said, "See, I told you, if you eat your fruits and vegetables...!" I had to stifle a laugh.

It's all very well if young students see me exercising and eating right. But, you know, not everything I do is appropriate for kids. Sometimes I wonder about some young student deciding to model my occasionally Dionysian relationship with the grape and the grain, or my unorthodox romantic life. Or there's the craziness I engage in at events like Free Spirit Beltane or FSG or Starwood or PDF.

I'm not ashamed of any of these things, obviously; I'm quite happy and proud that in many ways I don't fit into the usual cultural norms. But it complicates the whole "role model" thing in a way I still haven't resolved.

Maybe the deeper answer is to be a role model in "following your bliss," wherever that may lead. But that's a little more complicated than being seen eating a pear.