From what I remember I started martial arts right as I began kindergarten. I really liked art when I was little. I took drawing and painting classes, so when my mom asked me if I wanted to take martial art's classes with my very best friend, of course, I said yes.
My first karate class was, I'm sure, incredibly confusing. I don't remember my first class but my dojo became my second home. My best friend's grandfather had practiced martial arts for most of his life. He was well known at the dojo so my best friend and I quickly became a part of the community. Around three days a week for nearly ten years, I was in that dojo.
The dojo provided me with some of my most vivid childhood memories. It is an older and well-established dojo in my city, opened all the way back in 1984. The building itself is an old rented out storefront in an artsy, historic neighborhood.
Most of the main floor had been redesigned to allow for a large raised canvas mat. The mat started at the back wall and ended at the front. It was a traditional thick piece of canvas pulled tight across the entire foam floor with rope. On the front wall was a simple altar with a picture of the founder of Aikido along with a vase often with a few fresh flowers.
The rest of the front wall was wood-paneled in a reminiscent of Japanese houses. The back wall was covered in rows and rows of wooden stakes displaying and storing about a hundred wooden, and I believe one or two real, swords. On the two sides of the mat were the entrances to the building and spaces for parents to observe.
On one there were several storage containers for various fake knives, swords and sparing pads. On the other side, there was a bathroom and stairs that went down to a damp basement where locker rooms were. On this side, was a large dresser littered with pens pamphlets and all of the member information.
Here instructors often spoke to parents while waiting for class to start. Sometimes I would sneak pre-wrap from the first aid kit to make a haphazard headband or hair tie. Next to this was a large bell hung from a custom wooden case that even had a roof. The bell was rung at the beginning of each class and every kid would frantically get into line before falling silent.
That is just one example of the traditions that my instructors implemented that made the dojo a community. All my ten years at the dojo I took karate and aikido classes. My instructors for karate were always at the dojo and have had the most lasting influence on me. I called them Jeff Sensei and Maria Sensei.
Jeff Sensei was older, maybe in his mid to late fifties, when I started. Maria Sensei was maybe half his age and she had three children all either a bit older or a bit younger than me. They were both intense, high emotion people who were passionate about their craft and invested in their students.
They taught me discipline, dedication, and humility, meanwhile I thought I was learning how to protect myself and others. As I became one of the older and thus one of the more experienced kids at the dojo I was given more and more unofficial responsibility. For my higher-level belts, I was expected to volunteer for demonstrations, keep the class equipment organized, and set an example for new students.
At the time I wasn't great at that last one. I was in middle school and while I was overcome with anxiety by the thought of getting in trouble or yelled at, my need for gossip and socializing loudly before class usually won. At this point, Jeff and Maria Sensei had no qualms about disciplining me.
I seem to remember having sat out a class or two or maybe more because we had disturbed class while talking loudly in the locker rooms. Eventually, however, I was deemed mature enough to pursue my black belt. This was a pretty long process and I was joined by my best friend and one other young man who had joined our class a few months after we had.
The three of us were put through a few weeks of testing. Our skills and knowledge of karate were tested first in several physical challenges. We were also asked to plan and run a day of youth classes which was an exhausting and nerve-racking experience at the time. This was one of my first times public speaking.
It wasn't the students listening to everything I said and watching my every move that made me nervous, it was the adults. Black belt test tended to draw a large crowd there were exciting tests like board breaking, sparring matches, and memorized routines. Often our testing for the day would span all of the daily youth classes and younger students along with their parents would stay to watch our intensely serious but ultimately exciting test.
My black belt test was the first time I was asked to prove my dedication to something. It was a pretty taxing ordeal at the time but in hindsight, it prepared me for the challenges of high school and more importantly life. Guided by my two senseis I passed my test and even got enough courage to break a wooden board with a punch.