March 16, 2012
By Simon Rich
Our sensei showed up late to karate class with a black eye and a bloody nose.
"What happened?" someone asked.
"I got attacked," he said.
"No," he said. "Just some punk kids. They didn't even take my money. They just wanted to have a laugh I guess."
He sat down on the mat and rested his head against the wall.
"God," he said. "I feel so powerless."
There was a long pause. Eventually, I stepped forward. I was the most advanced pupil in the class - a yellow-belt - and I often served as our spokesman.
"Sensei?" I asked. "Why didn't you use karate?"
Our sensei - whose name was Ethan - took a long, slow breath.
"Listen kids," he said. "I've got some bad news about karate."
He motioned for us to come closer, so he wouldn't have to raise his voice. Then he talked for a while about gangs, guns and the uselessness of martial arts.
"What about the Rules of Combat?" I asked.
"Muggers don't follow those rules," Ethan said. "When they see you walking down the street, and they need money for crack cocaine, they're not going to say, 'Hey, what style of karate do you use?' and then fight you in that style. They're just going to jump out and attack you. "
"Were your attackers trying to get money for crack?"
"I don't think so," he said. "I'm pretty sure they were just crazy. One of them kept laughing while he was hitting me, like the whole thing was a big joke. That's the other thing...a lot of people out there are just crazy. If they want to go after you, that's that. There's nothing you can do."
I fiddled nervously with my yellow belt. There was something I wanted to ask him, but I feared the answer.
"If karate doesn't work," I ventured, finally. "Then why did our parents send us here?"
"To lose weight," Ethan said.
"Yeah. This is a weight loss center. That's why it's called Trim Kids."
We swiveled our heads around and inspected each other's bodies. It was true: we all could stand to lose a couple pounds.
"Is that why we run so many laps?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
Nobody spoke for a while.
"Hey Ethan?" I asked. "If karate doesn't work...why did you decide to teach it?"
"I'm trying to make some money, so I can move out of my parents' apartment. I've lived there for twenty-five years -- I can't stand another month."
"I thought you said you were raised in Tokyo?"
He shook his head.
He covered his face with his hands.
"I'm a fraud, kids. A total fraud."
"That's not true!" I said. "You taught us to count to ten in Japanese."
"I didn't even do that right."
"What do you mean?"
"I forgot how to say 'eight' so I just made that number up."
"So eight isn't 'Hyundai?'"
"No," he admitted. "That's a kind of Japanese car."
He lay down on the floor and curled up into a fetal position. He looked like he was about to cry.
"Hey Ethan?" I said. "I think you were a pretty cool karate teacher."
"You don't have to say that," he mumbled, his voice thick with anguish.
"But it's true," I said. "We all do. Right?"
The white-belts nodded. We loved Ethan. He'd taught us curse words, told us the plots of dirty movies. Just today he'd introduced us to the words "crack cocaine." So what if he wasn't from Tokyo. We lived in Manhattan. From our perspective, Long Island was equally exotic.
"You're the best teacher we've ever had," I said. And I meant it.
He sat up slowly, blotting his eyes with his sleeve.
"Why are you kids so cool?" he said.
"Because we had a cool teacher," I told him.
It was hard to tell -- because his face was so discolored from his beating -- but it looked to me like he was blushing.
"Hey Ethan?" someone asked. "What's crack cocaine?"
He glanced at the clock. There were still 55 minutes left in the class.
"Gather round," he said. "I'll tell you all about it."
"Why the fuck not?"
We formed a circle around our sensei and the class began in earnest.