sensei/student relationship in the age of Facebook

Posted on: Thu, 10/11/2012 - 00:31 By: Tom Swiss

Last Sunday I got to meet up with my good friend and karate colleague Mike Gurklis. The occasion was the Street Beat Festival in Federal Hill, Mike's old neighborhood. One of our favorite bands was playing, so Mike brought his family down and we got a change to hang out, and then go get sushi.

As we walked around the festival, browsing the vendors and catching up, Mike told me how back when we were mudansha (students below black belt rank) together he had run into our sensei, Neal Pendleton, at this same festival. It was the first time he'd encountered one of our instructors outside a dojo event -- not being Sensei Neal but just a guy hanging out having a beer.

Mike and I started our karate training back in the mid-80s, long before the age of social media. Back then our sensei were figures of awe: partly because we were teenagers looking up to accomplished adults, but also because just about all we knew of their lives was their karate. And there were legends, second- and third-hand stories of their exploits, like how Sensei Neal had taken his shodan promotion with a broken rib and been one of only a handful that passed, or Sensei Ciekot's training in Japan under the legendary Mas Oyama. The idea that they were just men who would go out and have a beer and see a band, people with personal lives, was incredible!

But these days, some of my students are Facebook "friends". They see the the goofy internet memes I share, see me complain about everyday frustrations, read the political posts I put up. And it goes both ways; I'm Facebook friends with my sensei and several other seniors. That includes even Nidaime Akira Nakamura, the Vice-Chairman of the World Seido Karate Organization. He posts photos of his kids, comments on sports. His account is more professional than mine (I don't know if he keeps a personal one as well), but it's still much more of a glimpse into the personal life of a karate master than Mike and I got back in our novicehood.

Sometimes it makes me a little nervous -- as I've written before, the whole karate sensei as role model thing combines with being a member of various alternative subcultures in complicated ways. I don't want to push, for example, my flavor of Paganism on my students, to say nothing of freakier exploits. But on the other hand, it's important for students who might be outside the cultural mainstream themselves to know that they're not alone, that this karate school is open even to us weirdos, so I don't want to hide my freak flag.

I guess I find myself going with the general principle that openness is better; if someone is going to end up offended by my personal life, best if they find out early rather than later.

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