I have been struggling with ambivalent feelings about my position at the Dojo...
The confusion of being involved with the business aspect, helping teach students but being a green belt and not viewed as an instructor leaves me in between a rock and a hard spot. Our head instructor, JR Diaz (7th Degree Black Belt) has always said that a dojo is like a puzzle and every student is a piece that makes the puzzle whole. Perhaps the reason for my mixed emotions is because my piece to the puzzle is shifting.
Either way, I was feeling off and an upcoming seminar was just what I needed. Our Dojo had the honor of hosting three majorly iconic figures in our system: Grandmaster Huk Planas (10th Degree Black Belt), Sifu Marty Zaninovich (9th Degree Black Belt), and Grandmaster Frank Trejo (10th Degree Black Belt).
Grandmaster Trejo had to be picked up due to previous health issues from Diabetes; where his legs, left hand and part of his right hand had been amputated. He had insisted he was ready for some wheelchair Kenpo. My Sifu told me he didn’t have a ride for Grandmaster. Knowing my Sifu was stressing, I immediately volunteered for the task, taking the stress upon myself.
I had never met this man but knew he was a legend.
The entire 3 ½ hour drive to LA I fretted the what if’s. What if I insult this man? What if he was insulted a green belt and not a black belt was there to pick him up? 3 hours is a long time to come up with a lot of what ifs...
Worrying was clearly a waste of energy.
Grandmaster Trejo was warm, welcoming and excited to tell his old fight stories and different theories on Kenpo. He immediately told me, “When you’re out there and you’re trying to perfect your craft, you’re learning to fool the other guy. You’re a magician doing magic. Leave them asking, ‘How did he do that?’ It’s magic.”
He also told me about how he became involved in Kenpo and became an instructor...
“My mom saw an ad in the newspaper. It said ‘Wanted Karate Instructor: no experience needed. $700.00 a month. That was a lot of money back then and I was already into karate. I put my brother in first doing Shotokan. I was excited and I’d tell him show me what you learned so I could learn. When I started with Kenpo there was a bunch of us but there was only a couple of us that stook with it. They would try to make you quit. Huk Planas and Steve Herring were my first teachers. Steve Herring taught me but Huk Planas taught me how to be an instructor. I was teaching when I was just a yellow belt.”
I secretly loved hearing his stories of teaching as a lower ranked student.
When we got to the Dojo, so many students were elated to see him and it was an emotional reunion between him and Grandmaster Planas. In all the commotion of greetings and photos, I found an appreciation that I had been allowed so much time one on one with him.
For his class we pushed his wheel chair out onto the mat. He started with a few stories, opening with a few Rodney Dangerfield jokes he had practiced in the car with me. Watching him run a class in his condition was nothing short of remarkable. He grabbed a few students to help demonstrate the drill we would be working on. It was awesome watching him demonstrate accurately the drill despite his handicaps. He had students working on a sticky hands Huba exercise that had the students working on free movement and feeling where blocks and strikes should go, instead of being told were to insert them. The student’s enjoyed it and it was clear the class was a success.
When we were driving back to the hotel for Sifu Trejo to relax before Dinner...
He started apologizing for leaving early because some students where still visiting when we had left. I wasn’t worried about it. I was still chewing over what he had said about being a yellow belt and being an instructor. The Dojo dynamics were trying at times being a green belt and trying to be an instructor let alone doing it as a yellow belt.
When he asked what was wrong, I didn’t know how to tell him that I was feeling the edges of my puzzle piece shifting, wanting to be an instructor but that the Dojo was trying to force me to fit in my old gap. I tried explaining, “I’ve been struggling with where I belong in the Dojo. I help on the mat teaching but I am not viewed as an instructor because I’m out ranked by so many. I don’t know what to do.”
He nodded and told me another story,
“When I was 18 and I was an orange belt with Steve Herring a guy came into the Dojo one night high on PCP. We had a few students on the mat in different belts, some higher rank than me. He came in looking for Steve and ended up attacking me. Well I’m trying to fight him and it wasn’t working because he’s high on PCP. Well Steve came out and he starts fighting the guy. He picked Steve up over his head to throw him…”
“We had a pool stick we used as a club. I grabbed the pool stick and I’m hitting him in the ribs with the stick. When he wouldn’t drop him I started hitting him in the legs. He finally dropped my instructor and I remember him standing in the door. He salutes us and says ‘I’m coming back to kill you,’ and he takes off. Well we chase him outside and start fighting again, trying to hold him down till the police could get there and arrest him.”
I was horrified, “What about the other students? Did they help?”
He turned and looked at me with a stone cold face and said, “No and some of them out ranked me. They just stood and watched.”
He didn’t say anything for a little bit. I think he was giving the story a chance to sink in but I said, “I can’t wrap my head around that.”
He told me, “The rank doesn’t matter. I fought for instructor. I did it for my school. That’s what matters.”
I realized I had lost sight of why I do karate. It’s not about obtaining a black belt. A black belt is merely a status symbol that a student has met certain requirements. It’s the student behind the belt that matters. It’s the dedication to yourself, your instructor and your Dojo that counts.
When it was time for Grandmaster Trejo to go home he gifted me with a new gi with his patch and he told me the story and meaning of his patch.
“When Grandmaster Parker died,
I wanted to make a patch that was like the black armbands you wear when in mourning. So I made the Ghost patch and I only had 10 of them made for the 10 instructors he left behind. Well as time went on they each began to make their own patch and said this should be mine. I left it grey with no colors because when Grandmaster Parker died the color in Kenpo left.
It’s up to us to bring the color back.”
I know there’s no crying in Karate, but I cried a little.
There isn’t a truer statement. It falls on us to continue our systems and bring the life into them. Its up to us to remember that a yellow belt, purple belt or even a green belt is just as important as a black belt. That is why the patches are in color, because one day that yellow belt will be a black belt. We are all needed, because we are all one piece to the puzzle.
6/9/2016 11:51:17 pm
6/10/2016 09:21:44 am
Thank you for sharing your experience with Mr. Trejo.
6/11/2016 07:38:17 am
Great story what an excellent memory for you to keep. Might I add that you are a very good writer? I enjoyed it very much. Thanks for sharing!
8/23/2016 07:40:42 pm
Very well written. I was very intrigued! Keep up your spirit and compassion it is impressive.
10/25/2016 05:42:41 am
GM Trejo is an amazing man. I have had the privilege of training with him several times. This man is definitely a Kenpo icon. Thanks for sharing your story.
10/25/2016 04:01:34 pm
I met Mr. Trejo many years ago at a seminar with Mr. Planas and Mr. Dye. We had a great time. He was funny, very personable and fantastic on the mat weaving boxing into our kenpo moves. I had no idea about his issue with diabetes but I am thrilled to hear he is still at it!
11/22/2016 12:29:52 pm
Great story here. I spent years training with and hanging out with Mr. Trejo. He is one of the greatest men I ever met. He has a heart of gold, the spirit of a lion and a great sense of humor. They don't come any better.
4/11/2018 12:10:32 pm
I read this today, the day of Sensei Frank's passing, and it speaks volumes of his character. About how he connected to everyone around him, it was my honour to train with him on many occasions here in London, ON; I always picked up something new, either through his stories or his lessons. He will be missed. Thank you for sharing.
10/4/2018 03:37:17 pm
Started taking lesson from Frank & and Steve at the old Walnut, Pasadena studio, 1970. We use to drive into Chino Town every Friday night and watch the old Chinese Karate movies with sub-titles. After the movies we walk the streets of Los Angeles, China Town area and try out our technics. Sometime they worked and sometimes Steve Herring got all his front teeth knocked out. 1970 crazy time for Kenpo. Many good times and great memories from the adventures of Frank & Steve. Rest in peace friends...
7/15/2022 04:08:45 am
Great blog I enjoyed readiing
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Jesalyn Mae Harper
Hello my name is Jesalyn. I'm a divorced single mom and a karate addict...