Earlier in the day, I got an instant message from one of my friends/instructors:
B: You teaching tonight?
Me: Yup. That’s the plan.
B: You might have a visitor.
Me: New student?
B: No. Some guy. I think he used to train with us. Stopped by looking for you.
Me: Hm. Okay. I’ll keep my eye out.
After this exchange, I didn’t think much about it. Work has been very busy since I returned from leave. (As evidenced by the fact that I haven’t been keeping up with my blog entries as I had hoped.)
When I arrived at the dojo, my family was there. Although we weren’t having a kids class, my daughter wanted to know if she could hang out at the dojo while I taught. As it’s summer, I had no problem with spending a little extra time with her (I never do), and my wife, I am sure, was happy to have only two kids to deal with for an hour or two. This is when the dojo becomes an extension of my living room. The 20 minutes or so that I have before classes start is often when I get to catch up with my family. Without this time, there would be a couple of days each where I simply wouldn’t see my kids–a hard sacrifice to make, but one we recognize as part of running a second business. Fortunately, all of my students understand this, and it’s not uncommon for one of them to start warm-ups while I say goodbye and get ready to train. I don’t know how I’d survive without that, actually.
Anyway. We had about 10 minutes before class started, and in walks a very tall individual. For a moment I didn’t recognize him, and then it dawned on me. It was an old student of mine, from the days when I taught at the YMCA. Back then, he was around 14 or 15. He was a good kid, doing his best to hold his own among a group of really big guys. (Well, except me, of course.) When we moved into our new space, he joined up, only to quit shortly thereafter. He had an ankle issue that made training on the mat increasingly painful. Once he left, I heard from him maybe once or twice, but I didn’t think much about it. I figured he was in high school, and his time on the mat was done. He was ready to move on to the next challenge.
The person who walked in was the same kid, and yet wasn’t. Now close to 18, he was taller than I am. (This is why I never tell anyone they’re shorter than I am. I tell them they’re shorter than I am… “for now.”) He was getting ready to go to college in a few weeks, and felt like he wanted to stop by the dojo and say hi. We chatted about how his family was, and about what he was going to study at school. He asked about how the dojo was doing, and was glad to hear that we had grown so much since when he left. I figured he was going to stick around for a few minutes, but to my surprise he stayed and watched all of class. He even entertained my daughter, who figured this guest was also her guest, and so she should make conversation pretty much incessantly. She’s good at that.
Afterwards, as everyone was heading home, this former student looked at me. He had tears in his eyes, which surprised me. He told me that he wanted me to know how much he appreciated all I had done for him, and that I had been like a second father to him. I was truly, deeply touched. I had no idea that I had affected him so strongly. Even now, as I write this, the emotions of that moment are very easy to feel. For him, it was a moment where he got to thank someone who he felt was a help to him as he was growing up. For me, it was a moment to realize that, through the dojo, I have an opportunity to impact people in ways that I cannot predict nor fathom. I remember him being on the mat, and I remember treating him with respect, honesty, and I remember doing my best to teach him what I knew of aikido. To me, this was no less than what anyone else deserved, and yet it clearly had an impact on him that I could never have predicted.
I worry a lot about the dojo, sometimes. I worry about its finances. I worry about the number of students that show up for classes. I worry about the time it takes away from my family, and whether it’s worth the sacrifice. Moments like these, where it’s revealed to me that I have really helped someone, make all of these worries vanish. Moments like these are when I understand why people become teachers–you may not always know the impact you have on your students. But when you do, it’s profound in a way unlike anything else.