Extended Family: Community in a Dojo
My first night of training was exhausting, and I was barely doing 30% of what everyone else was doing. I couldn't take a roll, perform a single technique, or pronounce the Japanese phrases everyone else was rattling off around me. It takes a long time to notice it, but when one first starts training, no one realizes that they don't even know how to LOOK at a technique.
An old senpai of mine, Jeff Bauman once explained it, "You see it, but you don't see it. You watch it, but it's like the shifting pattern the wind makes - without rhyme or reason to anyone but the leaves."
In spite of my fatigue and exasperation with myself, I joined up that night. Not because Aikido was anything magical. As I said, I didn't even know how to SEE it, yet. And it wasn't because I wanted to throw people around like our Shihan (teacher of teachers) Steven Seagal. (Okay, maybe I wanted to throw people around a little.) I joined the dojo that first night because the students in it, without exception, made me feel like I had always been there. There was no judgement for my lack of ability. Nobody started off any different. Shikko, a knee-walking technique and possibly the most basic of all, had once stumped the best of them years ago just as it was stumping me.
There was no hesitation by the upper-ranking students to slow down the moves to the glacial pace at which I could observe the motions. Every student in the room had stolen training time from a senior student, and it is the unspoken duty of those students to pass on that sacrifice when the time comes. No one questions this duty. No one complains, and after nearly a decade I can tell you, slowing down is harder than speeding up when it comes to technique.
The true test of our familial ties came some years down the road, when I was going through a divorce, homelessness, and a miserable bout of poverty. My Sensei offered advice and tuition breaks. My fellow students donated money and food to me anonymously. One student even allowed me to stay in a home he owned in exchange for some DIY work on the place.
I'm not the first person to receive such support from their home dojo. Over the decades, students have lost loved ones, homes, finances, and endured hardships beyond number only to find that scores of fellow Aikidoka (and even extended "family" in Aikido dojos across state lines) have their backs.
We are available to one another. We are supportive of one another. We go (far) out of our way for one another. I cannot think of a better example of a family or community than that.