In 1979 I found myself teaching karate three nights a week for my teacher, Bob Sparks, who had recently opened a clothing store and wasn’t available to teach karate. I didn’t blame him for looking for another source of income; teaching karate is like being a nun: you take a vow of poverty.
I really enjoyed teaching, although I can’t say I was a great teacher from the start. My students frequently looked at the clock on the wall as if to say, ‘When can I get out of here?’ I complained about them to my great-grand-sensei, a wonderful, deeply kind man from Staten Island, New York, Chris DeBaisse.
“I have bad students,” I said, “they’re always looking at the clock. I think I’ll take it off the wall.”
He urged me to leave it up there. “When they stop looking at the clock you’ll know that you’ve improved as a teacher,” he explained. “There are no bad students; only bad teachers.”
Around this time I was approached by a group of radical lesbian feminists who wanted to learn karate in a women’s-only environment. They weren’t interested in training with me at Sensei Spark’s dojo in the suburbs. They wanted a place in the city. They wanted a place just for women.
I approached Sensei Sparks and asked permission to open an all-women’s club in Boston. He said no. I tried to convince him, saying that I’d continue to teach for him at the present salary (which was zero) but he wouldn’t hear of it.
I drove five hours to Staten Island to meet with Sensei DeBaisse because of all the martial artists whom I knew, he was the wisest. “What should I do?” I asked.
“The acorn can’t grow in the shade of the tall oak tree,” he said. I turned around and drove home. I had my answer.
When I told Sensei Sparks that I was going ahead with my plans he threw me out of the dojo. I won’t repeat all of what he said. He found some colorful words to disparage my religion, my gender and my sexual identity (he was wrong about the last one!) and then said, “Get the @#*# out of my dojo.” Today I understand why he was so angry. Today I realize that he did me a favor. At the time I felt bereft. I was a student without a teacher.
I opened my dojo in the South End of Boston on the second floor of an old warehouse above a bank in a building filled with artists’ studios. I polished the hardwood floors, hung up a heavy bag and a speed bag and put a sign in the window. On the first night there were twenty students – 19 radical lesbian feminists and one token heterosexual woman. I was in business.