Rule Breakers: Not "Not Your Business"

When I was in my late twenties, I studied karate at a women’s dojo. This surprised my friends, who immediately started teasing me — a newly out lipstick lesbian — about going for a “pink belt” (there’s no such thing). I surprised myself by progressing from white belt to yellow to green to blue.

Friday nights were sparring nights. Barefoot and dressed in a white gi, I paired off with a woman my size. We circled each other, punching and kicking without making actual physical contact (though we were trained not to hold back should we ever find ourselves in an actual dangerous situation).

I was surrounded by pairs of fighting women. Every so often, the silence of the room was broken by a loud kiai, the shout uttered when executing an attacking move. The kiai was an integral part of our practice. It came from the gut and helped each of us focus, call up energy, and intimidate our opponent.

The dojo had many rules. Bow when entering. Bow to your partner. No shoes allowed. No talking allowed. And above all, keep your focus on yourself.

On this particular night, I noticed a new student who seemed distressed. She wasn’t fighting back. She wasn’t keeping up. She looked scared. And vulnerable. Before class was over, she fled the room.

I stopped mid-kick, bowed to my partner, and ran after the new student. I found her curled up and sobbing on the dressing room floor. “It’s too hard,” she wept. “I can’t do it. I can’t even kiai.”

“It’s okay,” I told her. “Cry it out.” I knew that sparring often brought up strong memories and emotions and that many women found it terrifying to use their voices.

The student left, and I gathered up my things. After class, Sensei asked to speak to me. I expected praise. Instead, I was scolded. “It’s not your business,” Sensei said. “Next time, leave her alone.”

I was stunned. And I disagreed. So I broke another rule. I talked back. “I hope to God if I’m ever sprawled on the dressing room floor crying my heart out, someone will come check on me,” I said, and left. Though I continued training at the dojo, it never felt the same.

Thirty-five years later, I saw the woman again, at a party. “Do you remember that time at the dojo?” she asked.

She didn’t have to say which time. I remembered.

“You said something so helpful, that I still think about it to this day. ‘Sometimes the things we hate the most become the things we love the most.’ You helped me find my voice.”

Lesléa Newman

Lesléa Newman is the author of seventy books, including Remembering Ethan; A Letter to Harvey Milk; October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard; I Carry My Mother; The Boy Who Cried Fabulous; Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed; and Heather Has Two Mommies.

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