Full of nervous energy, I drove to Leigh High School for the NCKF promotion exams. Deep in a quiet suburb of San Jose, the residential district was wholly unaware that some 200 swordsmen were converging in their neighborhood to prove their art and skill before a panel of judges.
It was my first time there, so I was somewhat nervous, and hoped I’d at least be able to find the room or building the exams would be held in. I needen’t have worried. The place was deserted, aside from one portion of the parking lot roped off for an MSF class, there was a huge crowd of cars in one corner, and dozens of people moving between the cars and a large building, which was swarming with kenshin. Obviously, that was where I needed to go.
I parked, grabbed my stuff, and went in. Friendly faces pointed me to the sign-in desk, then the changing rooms, then the practice & testing area. After changing from my street clothes into full kendo gi and armor, I went into the practice area to figure out what the heck was going on, and what would happend during the exams.
I found a few friends from my dojo, and they helped me warm up, practice routines, and educated me on how to enter the arena, when to bow, walk, and start. I learned the new word “hajime” – the word used to signal the start of a match.
Sooner than I anticipated, a fellow with an unintelligible asian accent started giving instructions over a very distorted PA system, and all the participants started milling about on one side of the room. Within a few minutes, one of the examiners came over, calling participant numbers, one by one, and putting us in 3 general groups, lined up 4-7 deep. I wound up in spot #3 of my group, on the first row. Noooo! The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach sunk even lower. Turns out, I was to be in the first group of 4 to be examined!! All my hopes of being able to see what to do before doing it were dashed!
Happily, I wasn’t nearly as nervous as the guy in spot #1. They were working though the groups in order from newest to most advanced, and none of us had done this before. Guy #1 was sweating bullets, and stuttering as he asked the sensei all the questions I was thinking. Happily, they explained where we were to go, what the routine would be, and where to go afterward.
So the four of us put on our helmets and gloves, stood, and lined up. Guys 51 and 52 walked out onto the floor at the designated spots, performed a kirikaishi, then a keiko. Exam over, 51 rotated out and, too suddenly, it was my turn to rotate in!
I tried to remember everything I had been told, as I walked to the mark, forgetting to draw my shinai as I took my third step in the ring, and did so after squatting in the ready position. At the call, “Number 52, kirikaishi. Hajime!” We stood, and I did the best kirikaishi I could muster. Tension filled my body, and I hope my form was good, because none of my strikes or footwork were produced by conscious effort or control.
That done, we returned to the start marks, and held kamae. The sensei called, “Number 51, Number 52, keiko. Hajime!” At that, we began a regular fencing match, looking to strike whatever we could remember to do. I don’t remember ever checking or correcting my form or kamae, but I know I looked directly in my opponents eyes, watching, and striking at the first opportunity. I don’t know how long we went before the sensei shouted “Yemen!” signalling the end of the match.
51 rotated off, and I crossed over to take his spot. 53 took the spot I just vacated, and we did the exact same routine, except this time he struck kirikaishi on me. I remembered and tried to perform the tips on receiving kirikaishi given me by my dojo-mates earlier, holding the shinai straight up, and blocking with firmness.
That done, we went into keiko, and then the match was done. I rotated out, and went back to the spot where we originally lined up. After 53 fought 54, and then 54 fought 51, our whole group was done, and we kneeled and removed our helmets and gloves.
The whole rotation took less than 15 minutes, but it was a good 20 minutes more before all the pressure in my chest and head returned to normal. I can’t believe how stressed I turned out to be! My mouth was completely dry, which I hope was a sign of good, loud kiai.
We sat for another hour and a half, until our whole group was done with examinations. The judging panel then pulled us up into a half-circle, to give instructional tips on our technique. Summarized, it was: good footwork is crucial, don’t just wait to be attacked or take turns hitting, perform to your level all the time, the body must move in harmony and coordination, and to control and use effective maai, kamae, and zanshin. We were told we had all performed well, and congratulated. We’ll find out during regular practice this week or next whether we passed.
I also finally understood what they kept telling me in practice – not to go for points, but just to use good form. I still saw it as a match, and you have to get good strikes in during the match, right? I mean, it’s not give up and roll over time.
But I finally realized it wasn’t a contest. The exam isn’t about how good the opponent is, or how many strikes he gets on me, or me on him. It was about how well I performed, and how well I executed the techniques I had learned. It didn’t matter if either of my exam partners were more skilled than I. They were being judged on their level, and me on mine. I had to perform as well as I could, and that’s all that mattered.
And so it is in life. When it’s all over, we’ll be judged on how well we lived according to our knowledge. We cannot “win” vs anyone else, nor will our life be judged in comparison to anyone else. All that matters is that we each live as best we can, to the fullness of our potential.
When I left, the MSF students had mounted their motorcycles, and were slowly, timidly putting around the parking lot, learning how to push on the bars to turn. I watched them for a while, remembering when I took that class, 11 or so years ago. I wonder if they know what’s in store?