How old were you when you started practicing aikido? Unless you were one of the lucky few whose parents brought them to their first kids’ class, you probably started in your twenties or later. But what if you could have started earlier? What if your high school had its own dedicated dojo? What if you went to a public school where aikido was a course you could take for credit? Would it have changed your life?
Since 2008, that’s just the opportunity students of the Kettle Moraine High School campus have enjoyed – and it’s making a difference!
After a round of teacher cuts in 2008, which left a disheartening slew of open classrooms, I saw an opportunity for our school district. I approached then-principal Tanya Kotlowski with a proposition: If I could raise the money for mats and equipment, would she allow me to turn an empty classroom into a dojo? I told her I could use the space for the Community Education aikido night class that I teach, create an after school club, and even teach a class during the school day.
Kettle Moraine teachers are required to do one duty-hour per day, and my idea was to offer an aikido class in lieu of running a study hall. I figured it would be a good way to get aikido into the schools. Plus, the more we used the room, the more likely we would be able to keep it!
Principal Kotlowski immediately gave the proposal a thumbs up. I went home that night and crafted an email to my family and aikido friends to help out with funding. Responses began pouring in within the hour. I was hoping to get a couple hundred dollars, maybe a thousand if I was lucky. I had no idea how much support there was out there for an aikido initiative like this. Twenty-four hours later, I had pledges for over $8,000.
After putting in an order for Zebra mats, I brought the adult members of the Community Education class together. Thanks to the woodworking skills of several members and the generous hard work of many others, the new dojo sported a built-in support system for the mats that not only looked sharp, but acted to keep the mats from shifting around.
Calligraphy from the Aikido Kumano Juku Dojo in Shingu, Japan, graced the walls. Gifts of racks for the training weapons provided a space for practitioners to store their tools. And the classroom’s original chalkboard would allow the teacher to make notes as the lessons progressed. In a short two weeks, the empty classroom became a gateway to Japan.
During the construction period, I made a round of visits to study halls held during the last hour of the school day. I explained what aikido was and offered to take as new students anyone who was interested in spending their study hall learning this Japanese martial art. So when the dojo was ready, I had a new group of students waiting for me. Thus was aikido introduced to Kettle Moraine High School’s daily routine, and it has been an active part of the educational program there ever since.
Even though the dojo has moved twice (to bigger locations each time!), and needed another fundraising email to purchase more mats ($2,000 in 24 hours!), the spirit of aikido has continued to burn brightly in this little Midwestern village. Almost five hundred students have studied with me since 2008, and the numbers show no sign of slowing. The program also includes an exchange program with students living in Shingu, Japan, so that aikido students from Kettle Moraine can travel with me to train with my teachers at the Aikido Kumano Juku Dojo.
On opposite years, those same Wisconsin students play host to their Japanese friends. That program alone has provided over one hundred students with the opportunity to move between Eastern and Western cultures. Since 2010, with the introduction of public charter schools to the Kettle Moraine School District, aikido has been a transcript-able course, offering both an alternative to traditional physical education classes and an in-depth World Cultures course. When people see and hear what this has grown into, they just can’t believe it. And when I bring people to our room for the first time, I often hear them say, “It looks like a dojo.” I just laugh and say, ‘That’s because it is.’”
Michael Weber Sensei is an English and social studies teacher at Kettle Moraine High School. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.