For years I wanted to be a sensei. I dreamed of running my own martial arts club, teaching students how to reach black belt and beyond. I saw myself living a lifestyle of fitness and meditation, putting the core principles of budo into daily practice. I opened my own school, gathered a few students, and gave it my all.
Then I got sick. I was working a full time job and had four kids. I was hardly home, and when I was I was an emotional wreck. I was falling apart. My knees started to hurt constantly. I developed bone spurs. My wrists became chronically weak after a particularly brutal round of aikijitsu. My reactive airways syndrome (a cousin to asthma) went into over drive, frequently making me cough until I threw up. And I developed a mystery illness that left me physically numb and tingly, with next to no energy. I thought I was dying, or developing a permanent condition. At the least I had to confront the possibility that I wouldn't be able to run a school.
I closed the doors to my own school and tried to find homes for my students. I had become a failure.
Slowly I nursed myself back to health, although I'm not the man I was before. The knees will never be the same, and I tire easily. My wrists will be okay for stretches, but if someone applies a good kotegaeshi or 2nd control I'll be wincing for weeks.
There's a perception that an instructor has to be the best at everything, in perfect shape. They need to be free of underlying conditions, like asthma. They need to be nearly flawless. I was anything but.
How can a teacher be respected if they're in such rough shape? I asked myself this question during my long recuperation. Eventually I concluded that I couldn't ask my students to respect me in that condition without being a hypocrite. "Do what I say, not what I do."
I realized then that I could never run my own school. It is such a demanding job with almost no assurances, even when you're healthy. I gave up my dream of being a martial arts instructor, and I almost stopped training altogether.
Then people started asking for help.
I knew people who were getting ready to test for black belt. They asked me if I could take them through some kata they were having trouble with, or drills they had trouble remembering. They had questions about the philosophy, or the meanings of some more advanced concepts. I couldn't say no, and as I helped them in my small way, I realized I couldn't give up my training, either. I love the martial arts too much to let it go, and I find teaching in that capacity to be one of the most rewarding things in the world.
I have accepted that my role in the dojo will always be that of a learner, never a teacher. If my fellow students look up to me, I will try to be worthy of that respect. If they ask for help, I'm not cut out to be head honcho, but I'm quite happy to answer the occasional question after class. I'm never going to be flawless - not even close. But I'm content to push myself, learn what I can, and have a good time while I do it. I'm not out to impress anyone. Now that I'm free of that, I'm a satisfied student again.
This is my "happy place" in the dojo. And I'm so glad I didn't let go for good.