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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Fiction #62: Dave McGinn

Stepping Up

I want to explain what happened with your son because I don’t want Sensei Mike to get all the blame.

I know that I haven’t really earned the right to talk of the warrior code and all that stuff—I mean, I’ve only taken one class—but it wouldn’t be very honourable of me to say that what I did is all Sensei Mike’s fault. I’ve been trying to step up lately. That’s what my wife keeps telling me—“Jason, you need to start stepping up,” she’ll say, and so this is me stepping up. Although maybe considering what happened between your son and I it’s inappropriate to be talking in foot-related metaphors. I hope you understand that when I say I want to “step up” I only mean it as a figure of speech.

For three years now I’ve been teaching boys like your son at a private school in Oakville. Before that I had a job at a moving company and played bass in a band called Death Slinger that I really thought was going to take off one day. Please don’t judge me by the name. Eric our drummer insisted on it.

And to be honest, I thought it had a pretty cool ring to it back then.

But when Sarah—that’s my wife—got pregnant, she said it was time for me to step up. She called in a few favours with her mother, who is on the board of the school and all kinds of charity organizations. And so that’s how I got the job.

I tried to step up and buy a car to get to work in but Sarah said we needed to save money for a house. So I take the train, which is usually empty when I get on after work but by the time it’s close to the city good luck getting on let alone finding a seat.

I said I teach boys like your son but it seems like Scott is a decent kid who really pays attention in class. He seems like a good kid. You wouldn’t believe what my students are like.

They sing this song about me. They don’t think that I can her them but trust me I can hear them all right.

A couple of weeks ago I grabbed Tom Sanderson that little shit and I yanked that smarmy yellow and crimson tie of his and I pulled his face right up to mine and I yelled, “I know who Mr. Balls is. Don’t think you’re fooling anyone one!”

You can probably imagine that did not go over well with Sarah’s mom or Principal Lahr or Mr. and Mrs. Sanderson for that matter. But after a lot of apologizing and repeated referrals to the fact that there has never been any inappropriate behavior in my employee file, well everyone decided to let bygones be bygones and water under the bridge just never let it happen again.

Ms. Berton, another teacher in my department who’s always been really kind to me, pulled me aside in the teacher’s lounge a few days later to confide that that Sanderson kid is a real piece of work and perhaps if I got a hobby it would help deal with the stress.

I turned down her invitation to play tennis because it doesn’t seem like my kind of sport. But I did think she had a point about finding a hobby.

What’s weird is that right as I was thinking this on the train is when I saw the sign for Sensei Mike’s dojo out of the window.

It wasn’t only weird as a coincidence but weird because in three years I had never noticed the sign before.

But there it was, the fading black lettering against a red backdrop in the middle of one of those strip malls that are everywhere along the train tracks. The sign was simple, not like some of those martial arts places you see that are trying way too hard to sell it. You know, with pictures of dragons and stuff.

It was close enough to a stop that the next day after work I got off the train and walked over. I knew Sarah would be a bit ticked off about my being home late but I wanted to check it out.

Through the front window I could see that a class was in session. Two rows of people in white coats and pants—technically it’s called a gi—punching and kicking in unison.

Sensei Mike was at the front of the room, walking back and forth, hands clasped behind his back.
He was wearing a white gi like everyone else, which I respected. Some of these karate teachers in movies will wear black or red to try to look special I guess but Sensei Mike didn’t have to bother with stuff like that.

I also liked that he didn’t acknowledge me standing there on the other side of the window, the parking lot behind me.

I knew he knew I was standing there, but he must have wanted it to be my decision to come in or not.

When I walked in Sensei Mike came over to talk at the front counter. Everyone else stayed in their rows doing punches.

That discipline was something I really admired.

Sensei Mike asked me a few questions. Had I ever done any martial arts before? What did I want to get from learning karate?

He talked to me about honour and discipline and learning to live by a code.

Did you want to purchase a gi? Because I probably should, he told me. But he could provide me with shorts for tonight.

He fished out a pair that had pictures of goldfish all over them and the top of a gi from behind the counter and told me I could get changed downstairs. The shorts didn’t look suitable for a karate class but what was I going to say?

When I got back up from getting changed the two rows of students were doing punches and Sensei Mike motioned for me with a nod of his goatee to join in the back row. The kid next to me sort of looked at me without moving his head but that was it. I was just one more guy in class, even if no one else looked older than 17.

But as Sensei Mike had said, we’re all equals learning together.

It felt really good. Most of the moves were pretty basic—low punch, front kick—that I really felt like I was getting the hang of it. I started to break a sweat and all the stress from my day was gone. The rhythm of the class really puts you in the moment. Side kick. Stress gone. “Hiya!” Stress gone.

Sensei Mike even gave me an approving nod that made me really proud. I knew that Ms. Berton was right. I did need a hobby, and this was it.

Right then Sensei Mike said it was time for sparring. It threw me to be honest because I was really feeling in the zone doing moves and now I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do.

So I just followed along. Everyone sat in a really wide circle around blue mats off towards the far end of the dojo. I nudged in next to a heavyset kid with glasses who gave me the side eye but I ignored him.

“Marcus, Eric,” Sensei Mike barked. Two boys maybe a little older than Scott sprang up from their knees. I actually flinched, I think because of how aggressive they shot up. I mean, why not just stand up, right?

Glasses didn’t even bother hiding his side eye.

Marcus and Eric were circling each other. I was trying to get Sensei Mike’s attention. I needed some sign from him about how I was supposed to fit in with this whole sparring portion of the class.

But he was completely focused on the two boys on the mats. He had one arm across his chest and the other was scratching his goatee.

“Good, Marcus!” he said when Marcus landed a swift kick on Eric’s shin.

Sensei Mike was walking behind us, hands now clasped behind his back.

“What is your best defense?” he shouted when Eric was pinned to the floor.

Eric couldn’t figure it out, so Sensei Mike called “Good job.” Eric and Marcus bowed at each other and returned their seats in the circle.

Sensei Mike called the next two names and both boys popped up off their knees just like Marcus and Eric had. As Sensei Mike got near my I leaned back to get his attention but he still ignored me.

I wasn’t really watching the second sparring round but it ended pretty quickly.

“Jason and Scott!”

A kid across the circle from me launched up and right when I was thinking there’s no way I’m the Jason he’s calling I looked up and saw Sensei Mike looking straight at me.

Everyone kid in the circle slowly followed his eyes to me. I was still thinking there’s no way he’s serious.

But he did mean me. It was obvious. I hurt my knee a few years ago helping a pal move a couch so I had to get up a lot more gingerly than the other students, although I tried not to embarrass myself too much by doing anything like groaning.

When I got to my feet I tried to get Sensei Mike’s attention but he was already walking around the circle and looking in to space.

I turned and looked at your son. His eyes were squinting and I could see his nostrils flaring in and out. He looked like a wolverine ready to claw my head off.

I was just about to say, “Okay, I don’t know if this is appropr—” when Sensei Mike barked “Fight!”

Your son came rushing at me. For what it’s worth, he seems like a fearless kid. I crossed my hands in front of me to shield me from the blows. It didn’t help all that much. Your son fights like a whirlwind full of forks. He punched me in the stomach, then chopped me just below the shoulder, then hoofed me in the shin. I was frozen when he backed away.

I could see the kids in the circle trying to stifle laughs.

Side Eye had has head down as if looking at the scene would make him explode.

Of course now Sensei Mike was making eye contact. He did not look happy.


Your son charged me with his little fists of fury act again. He must have known I wasn’t going to fight back because he unleashed every move he knows on me. He darted away and looked at his little twerp friends in their crisp white gis and they all laughed. But they shut up fast when Sensei Mike yelled for silence.

What song would they make up about me here, I wondered.

I looked over at Sensei Mike who had a very pissed off look on his face. I wanted to ask, “What is it you want me to do here, man?” but it’s not as if I could do that in front of the kids. We just stared at each other and he nodded very slowly.

I knew exactly what he meant.


Scott came running at me with all the confidence in the world, fists raised high. I went in to a stance. Not the one I learned earlier in the evening. The one I was in when I played bass in Death Slinger—feet wide apart, arms out. And when he got near me, I kicked your kid as hard as I could right in the stomach. He folded like a chair at the torso and hit the mat like a bag of wet sand.
For a second there was nothing but complete stillness and the sound of wheezing for air. Then Sensei Mike and a few kids rushed over to your son, who was crying and gasping.

After the police arrived with the ambulance the whole thing obviously took a lot of explaining. Anyways, as you know, writing you this letter is part of my agreement with the court. You probably also know that I’m not allowed to attend any martial arts classes for six months while I do my probation.

The judge said that it was important to be honest and sincere in this letter—my apology must be from the heart, he said. So I want to tell you I am truly sorry for what I did to Scott. And in that same spirit of honesty I want you to know I promise to do better next time, and that I really can’t wait to see Sensei Mike again.


Dave McGinn lives in Toronto. His nonfiction writing has appeared in the National Post, Maclean's and The Globe and Mail, where he works as a reporter. He wants to be a stand-up comedian but is terrible at telling jokes. This is his first published short story. 

Photo credit is Siri Agrell.

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