Dōjō kun

Dōjō kun

by Sarah Normandie

Picture this. It’s 1995 and I’m sixteen. I’m the only girl in the Dojo. My white belt is tied around my Gi. My legs burn because I’ve been in this squat position for fifteen minutes while the Sensei discusses the history of Japanese martial arts. He paces back and forth as he talks. He punches each of our stomachs when he senses we’ve let our guard down. I try not to let mine loose. I worry I might be getting my period and that my boobs will fall out of my sports bra.

I’m here because my brother brought me. I’m also here because I want to be. The reasons are twofold. It’s not because I like physical activity. Despite my short stint on cross country, I’m not much of a sports girl. I’d rather be home listing to Nirvana on my Walkman while writing dark, moody poetry. But it’s the 90s and not only does Jeffrey Dahmer eat people, but my Teen Magazine is full of date rape stories. I figure I should probably know how to defend myself. Besides, my boyfriend is a student here too. That’s part of the motivation. Okay, maybe that was most of it.

At the end of each class, we recite the Dojo Kun. Hitotsu! Be Humble and Polite! Hitotsu! Train considering physical strength! We yell it in unison. Practice earnestly with creativity. Be calm and swift. Take care of your health. Live a plain life. Do not be too proud or modest. Continue your training with patience. These are the gifts from Miyagi Chojun. I chant the rules whole heartedly, even if I don’t know yet what it fully means to live them. It makes me feel like the girl version of Karate Kid. Wax on, Wax off. I’m all about the life lesson. I’m just too young to understand how many lessons I’ve yet to learn.

But those words – Hitosu! Be humble and polite! Hitosu! Train considering physical strength! – have echoed in my mind in the decades since. When I was broke and struggling to feed myself at nineteen, I’d recite them. Be calm and swift. When I almost died in the hospital I remembered, Take care of your health. Each time I faced a challenged that felt too big to achieve I’d think, Train considering your physical strength. Sensei always said it was important to remember to start where you are.

I never made it past my white belt, but I held my own when I was tossed in the middle of five guys throwing punches during a class drill. I loved the forms the best. It felt like dancing. I probably should have stayed training, but as they say, life happened. Still, I’ve never forgotten.

I may not have been the Karate Kid, but the Dojo Kun gave me the playbook for life. That’s worth more than any stripe or colored belt.

Sarah Normandie lives in New England. A former teacher turned attorney, Sarah currently negotiates multi-million dollar deals by day and writes by night. Married to her high school prom date, she is the proud mom of two amazing children. Sarah has studied writing under the UCLA Writers’ Extension Program and under the direction of Hollywood story structure guru, John Truby. Her work has been featured in several publications including CommuterLit.com, the Sky Island Journal, and The Fictional Café. Sarah recently completed her novel, Monsters Like Us and is working on her next book.