My Mississippi: Delta Dojo

This is an excerpt from the new book, Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta. 

In reflecting on the years I spent in the Mississippi Delta teaching fourth grade in the rural black public schools, it has taken me the longest time to realize just how much I was marked by my difference there—a gold-skinned, half-Japanese Hawaiian, half Russo-Polish Jew in a land divided between black and white. Most restaurants my fellow corps members and I frequented were ‘nicer’ ones with mostly white patrons—there was a café with a Delta-wide reputation in a brick building at the edge of the mostly empty downtown which did a lovely oven-baked catfish in a tureen with butter and herbs and light biscuits with butter and its crumpets fresh and smothered in jam and clotted cream.

Teacher
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The group of us who regularly met there Sunday mornings stood out for being younger and for our accents, and certainly I was always the only Asian person present, the diners white and the serving staff black except for the hostess and owner, who moved about the tables welcoming and greeting. I did a tour one evening of the country club, which had a small golf course and a restaurant and tennis court and a gym, but walking through I saw Talika’s mother there in a server’s whites, and the doorman and handyman and groundskeeper and bartender all were also black and wore server’s button-up uniforms, and I realized that here, the old ways were preserved; when I walked into the weight room, several silver-haired old men stopped their conversations and reps to stare with a mix of curiosity and hostility, and I realized that even if I paid the fee I couldn’t ‘join’. That I might never belong on the black side of town, but I would never participate in the privileges of segregation.

Instead, I decided to bring my outsider Asian in. Since the age of four, I’d trained the martial art of Aikido in the style of Shin Shin Toitsu, a particularly philosophical branch of the art. Aikido is exclusively a defensive art, based primarily in the principal of ‘non-decension;’ it aims to teach harmony and peace, to navigate conflict without engaging in a ‘fight.’ My father is a fifth degree black belt, and has his own dojo where I began training young; my mother is a second degree black belt; by the age of seventeen, I had my own Sho-dan, or black belt. And so it was that I went to Principal Burtonsen, and proposed an after-school Aikido class; the non-profit Aikido organization back in Oregon agreed to send out new gymnastics mats for me to teach on.    

I put up fliers throughout the school, went to classrooms on my free period to advertise, got permission to pitch my class in an assembly. I heard children talking about it in the school, Y’all heard bout that Chinaman gone teach that Karate class? and smiled and didn’t correct them about the name of the martial art or my cultural background. With trepidation one Wednesday afternoon I finished teaching and took my gi-bag to the boy’s bathroom. I knew full well the appeal and authority of uniform, and the regalia of an Aikido shodan is considerable: in addition to a thick cotton gi with long, wide sleeves embroidered with the patch of the Oregon Ki Society and the traditional Kanji ‘Ki’symbol and a black-belt about the waist, instructors wear a Hakama, a jet-black, intricately pleated Kimono-trouser secured with a complex series of knotted straps. I stepped out of the bathroom and into the hall and every child and adult I passed stopped in stunned silence. The Samurai arrives in the Delta at long last, I thought as I approached the gym. Inside were nearly thirty children, most of them boys. Their voices had been clamorous and still echoed, but most went silent as they saw me. One boy, late to notice, a fifth-grader known for being difficult, had his back to me and was the last to stop talking. He turned, and his eyes went wide. “Ooowee!” he said with a mix of surprise and delight.

I’d had a late free period when the gym was empty, and had already laid out the mats. “Please remain silent, and make a straight line facing me,” I said as I walked toward them. Jostling a little, they complied. One boy had his arms crossed, and I went to him and touched his elbow and said, “Arms at your sides,” and all along the lines children thrust their arms down. A fifth-grade girl who towered above all the rest of the children and who had a habit of slouching stood before me, her head hunched down as was her habit. “Please stand up straight,” I said, raising my own head and straightening my lower back, and the line complied. I stood before them, bent down and removed my shoes and then arranged them by my feet with each toe parallel. “Please remove your shoes and then return to line.”

There was quick shuffle and patter as shoes came off; I walked the line, corrected one pair that wasn’t straight and one pair that was out of line, and soon the shoes were in a straight line and the students stood just behind. The children’s eyes were bright with excitement and intrigue, and I stood before them and felt, for the first time since I had been in the Delta, that perhaps I did know how to teach something after all.  

I raised my hands to take in the bright squares of mat on the basketball court, the hoops and their sagging nets, the white halogens in their wire cages and the overhead fan turning circles in the recesses of the vaulted ceiling.  

“Welcome to our Dojo,” I said. “Here, you may call me Sensei.”

I showed the children how to sit seizah, backs straight and knees to the first line of mat panels and toes tucked flat underneath. Then, I made my way to the front of the room and faced them, sank to my knees and sat as they did, and bowed low from the hips, pleased to see first one or two students and then the rest bow with me. I sat back straight, and after a moment of silence, I told them what would happen: that I would bow with them low to the front of the gym, pivot again to face them, that we would call out as we bowed to each other to begin, Oneigashi Mas!, which we all knew meant ‘please do me the honor of training with me. I told them that if they understood, they were to say, “Yes, sensei!”, and then I asked, did they understand?

And there in the dim hot gym in the most unlikely dojo in the world, the chorus of voices echoed: “Yes, sensei!”

Not black voices, or Asian. The voices of Aikidokas.

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