I don’t care who you are, it’s never easy being at the bottom of the pecking order. It can be at work, at school, or at the local book group. Being the “new guy”, the most junior, the least skilled of the group is never an easy thing. This is even more evident in a physical, adrenaline-fueled activity such as martial arts.
Day One is tough for so many reasons. You’re nervous, anxious, often confused, out of shape, and completely surrounded by people who know more than you. This is particularly difficult if you are middle-aged, successful at work, and have a family. Why? Well, you are used to calling the shots in many areas of your life and making rules that are followed. People look up to you and follow your leadership, learn from your experience. This is true at home as well as at the job. A life of hard work, perseverance, and dedication pays off with rewards of seniority and authority.
When joining a new martial arts school as a White Belt, none of this truly matters. You are in a class of people younger and older than you who have more experience and you, for all intents and purposes, know nothing yet. Every move is new, every exercise is a trial, and you spend a fair amount of time trying to stay humble and learn to fit in. Sir, ma’am, Sensei, Master, bow, etc. It can be overwhelming.
It’s all good. In its own way, after all, the school environment mimics the real world in that respect. Life has many cycles where you start as the Freshman and move up to the Senior, the Big Cheese, the BMOC. Martial Arts schools are no different. You start at the bottom and learn all you can, enduring the mild arrogance that can emanate some from folks with higher belts. You put up with being in the Second Fiddle class in my school’s case (we have a Basic Class for White through Orange and an Advanced Class for Purple through Black), meaning your class might start late if the higher belts’ class is not done doing what they need to do, you step aside respectfully as they all exit the dojo, and you get used to not having a hand extended to you quite as often as you would from your Basic team mates. To be sure, this kind of hierarchy can creep into a Basic class as well, with slightly more expererienced students (say, 3 – 6 months in) walking a little more puffed out than someone starting their very first class and nearly pissing their pants. There are also the inevitable students who’ve watched too many action films and fancy themselves the next Bruce Lee, looking all dour and serious. It’s their time to feel confident and at the top of the pack — and to enjoy it while it lasts because in a few short months they’re back at the bottom once again as they move into the Advanced class and are the shoeshine boy all over again.
Although no instructor in any school would likely ever admit that this hierarchy exists, that not everyone in the school is there to help, and that there is no “pecking order”, I believe the hierarchy is not only unavoidable but also vitally important in the student’s journey. It is through humility that one becomes a better student. You must check your ego in at the door to your dojo.
Fortunately, in my case and so many other schools throughout the country, this hierarchy drama plays out in a larger context, within a wonderful school where the helpful overwhelmingly outnumber the arrogant, where teachers are genuine and helpful, and where a helping hand is extended far more often than it’s withheld.
The important thing to always remember, I suppose, is that someone will always know more than you and someone will always know less, especially as you move beyond your first few weeks of White Belt training. The “new guys” begin to grow in number and before you know it you’re nearing the top of the pack.
Don’t get cocky though. You’re Freshman year is coming again and no one likes a pompous ass.
“To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.”
— Charles de Montesquieu