#31 in a continuing series— 84 days in the teaching life of an
American sensei in 1999)

Dharman exited his private class, he passed my next client, the outgoing,
forty-five year old chemist named Steve. The two had met a few times before. Steve
is a pharmaceutical chemist with a great basso voice. As I fill my bottle with
distilled water from the gallon jug above the refrigerator, I hear Steve
remark to Dharman, “Sensei thinks I’m not coming back, man! But I’ll be back in
a few months.” Steve’s voice fills the studio.

Steve resigned from the pharmaceutical
company, Novartis Corporation, after fifteen years of service. He is
moving to Florida for a month for some R&R and to spend time with his mom in Tennessee who is dying from an incurable neural disease.
This is also Steve’s final class with me. A big phase of his life is

began private karate study a year and a half ago. We instantly hit it off. I admired Steve’s artistic nature. He is genuinely open and friendly. I knew the moment
he entered the dojo that he was here for more than kicking and punching.

business friends are throwing him a farewell party later in the day. “You know man,
people are still coming up to me and saying how courageous I am, to just quit and do what I want. I tell them, shit, if there’s something you really want
to do in your life, go do it! But there own
fear and insecurity pins them down from following their hearts.”

“I hear you, Steve. I can feel your enthusiasm
for life. But the new avenues ahead are going to challenge your current
interests. Maybe you’ll meet an incredible lady in Florida. Then that’s it for
karate study,” I joke.  “I’ve
watched a lot of students leave their martial arts with the intention of returning—most never do.”

wants to wrap up Seisan kata, today. He has ten moves left. Not only is he finishing his career at Novartis, he is finishing with me as his teacher.

would have been a mental strain for him to memorize the whole form during last
week’s session. A student may walk out the door retaining their memory of a
freshly learned kata sequence, but one hour later, they are straining to recall
the details. I’ve gotten calls at all hours of the day from students banging
their heads trying to remember their kata’s missing moves. One student even called
me while he was vacationing in Aruba. It drove him crazy that he couldn’t
remember the Wansu kata sequence he was practicing on the beach.  

and I got into a conversation about closure. His boss had reminded him, days
before, that he had promised him to finish a particular study.

“Listen, man,” Steve told his boss. “I’m not coming
back. I’m done.” But the boss
couldn’t drop his control game to get Steve to kowtow just one more time. Steve
didn’t fall for it.

do poorly with closure,” I told him. “Look at your boss. You’ve worked with him
for fifteen years and all he can muster is to finish your work. He
could have said, ‘you’ve been a ball-buster,’ or ‘hey, you were a great
employee, good riddance or good luck,’ but he can’t bring himself to close the
relationship properly.”

“Well this wraps it up, Steve.” I conclude his

looks me in the eye and says, “It’s been a great experience, and wait,” he steps back. “I
think this is right.” He aligns his feet and closes his fists and bows.

a moving and sincere gesture. His heart is fully in his rei.

farewell bow reminded me of an incident I experienced many years ago at a local
restaurant in Summit, NJ. I had come in for a Saturday evening dinner.
Unbeknownst to me, a group of students from my former dojo sat at a circular
table around their head instructor. I caught the instructor’s eye briefly as
the maitre de led me to my seat. I
knew this instructor from the old school, but he was as an underbelt back then. I did not recognize
any of his students sitting at his table.
The instructor recognized me immediately. He stood up, directed all his
students to rise. He gestured to the five men at the table. They turned toward
me, and bowed.

Steve left that day never to be seen again. Life is short. Live each moment fully!