The Silence Breaker
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa  (Mar 2013)


       NOTE: Kata = Preset series of karate techniques representing conflict with multiple opponents. Also known as “forms.” Each has a name. Mine is “Gankaku.”

       When Q&A time comes at your speaking event, and no one wants to ask the first question, despite your pleading glance and the enduring silence, fear not. If I am there, I will make something up on the spot just to rescue you, I will raise my hand, and I will ask you a question. You will thank me with your eyes, but it’s cool. Just doing my part as your superhero, The Silence Breaker. Soon, other hands that were hidden in laps or folded on notebooks will appear overhead, and then my work is done. Rise up, O ye hands! Rise up and be free!

       Last summer at a weeklong karate workshop, a visiting master instructor asked through his translator that we, when we see him during free time, please come up and ask him any questions we may have. The translator went on to add a personal note. “This is a great opportunity for you,” he said. “This is a master instructor. You come here to learn, and he wants to help you. Please. Ask him questions.”

       This was still ringing in my ears the next morning, when the same master instructor greeted us, then made an unusual request. “This is what we are supposed to do today,” he said, listing a few principles. “But is there anything else anyone wants to work on?” Silence. This is a great opportunity for you. This is a master instructor. Someone asked him to repeat the question (red flag number one). Perhaps we had misunderstood? Not so. The instructor asked again. Silence. He wants to help you. Please. Ask him questions.

       Allow me to describe who was in the room with me. I am a first degree black belt, and I am very proud of that accomplishment. That said, about 75 students made up this black belt class, and probably 70 of them outranked me. Some had been training for as long as I had been alive. Some run entire dojos in their home countries. Upon reflection, perhaps I should have followed their lead. Alas, I did what I do. No one was asking a question. The instructor really seemed to want us to ask questions. Shrug. I had a question.

       As mine was the lone hand in the air (red flag number two), it took no time for the instructor to notice it and acknowledge me. I bowed deeply, and said, “Sensei, if possible, I would like to work on the kata Gankaku.” He nodded and said, “All right. If there is time at the end of class, we will.” There were no other questions (red flag number three).

       We got started with drills, and I forgot all about this exchange. The instructor would sit us down in a big circle while he demonstrated an exercise, then we would get up to practice it. It was probably the fourth time he had asked us to sit when, as I was bending down, he pointed at me and beckoned with his finger. I froze for a moment in this awkward position, then sprang back up as everyone else was sitting down. I bowed to him, my face a question mark. And then it happened. In slow motion. His hand began to change, from pointing and beckoning, to opening and sweeping towards the center of the large human circle of senior level black belts from all over the world. He said one word: “Gankaku.”

       The question mark of my face jolted into an exclamation point. Three people actually laughed when they saw my expression, which translated to, "You want me to WHAT?" I sometimes get a bit nervous or amped before a big talk/task/ performance, but I cannot think of a time when I felt outright panic like this, so much that my heart rate increases today at the memory. When I tell this story to fellow karate-ka, their reaction at this point is always the same: a gasp, a deep and loathsome groan, then a heartfelt, “OH. NO.” Oh yes. He was not joking. He took a knee, his elbow on the other one, his chin in his hand, his eyes on my feet. No pressure. He reminded me of The Thinker. What was he thinking about? Maybe “Let’s teach this lady why no one else had a hand up.”

       What about me? As I took my first step towards the center of the black and white human ring of death, my thoughts went something like, “OMG, OMG, OMG….” By my second step: “Is my brain working? Am I going to mess this up in front of all these people? Am I going to embarrass my dojo?” Third step: “Lord, please let me remember the moves.” By steps four and five, I was breathing (a good start), and began to pull myself together. “FOCUS. What is the first move? Do that, and then just keep going.” Having arrived at the plank, I mean the center, it was time to face front, bow, and announce, “Gankaku.”

       I started slowly, so nervous that I could feel myself shaking. But muscle memory is my friend as well as yours, and my technique got stronger as I continued. After conquering the hardest balance move near the end, and completing the kata without leaving anything out, I was so grateful and disoriented that I forgot that this one ends facing the back (I bowed before turning around to face front again - oops). Otherwise, it wasn’t wonderful, but it wasn’t terrible, either. And, most importantly, it was over. Class continued for about ten more minutes, but I don’t remember a bit of what we did. A half hour later at breakfast, my heart was still racing. I felt like I had jumped out of an airplane.

       Comments afterward ranged from, “I was really proud of you” to “Thank God that wasn’t me!” to “Ha ha ha ha ha! (Gasp) HAAAA HA HA HA HA!” One person wisely pointed out that, after doing a surprise kata six feet from a visiting Master instructor, while surrounded by rows of senior black belts, no exam or competition situation will ever be as nerve-wracking. She made an excellent point. But among the smiles, nods, and supportive thumps on the back I received from my senior students, I felt them sending me another message with their eyes: “Now you know.” That I do. The Silence Breaker has been both silenced and broken. When I go to the workshop this summer, she will be staying home.

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