When I first walked into Joe Sheya’s dojang, I was a depressed, angry young man with long hair, a full beard, and all black clothing. I imagined myself a “dark soul,” but I was really just a self-absorbed geek who wore “misunderstood and angsty” like a hair shirt. There I was all gothic and brooding, asking to learn hapkido. Luckily, my friend, who had trained with Joe for many years, had taken me there to introduce me and Joe decided to give me a chance. The thing about Joe was that, rent or no rent, money or no money, if he didn’t want to train with you, he was not going to teach you. It may have been a business, but it was always personal. You were either family or you were not welcome back. After my introduction, Joe just kind of grinned at me and invited me in to try my first class. I still don’t remember what the class entailed, but I was most likely shown the first few white belt “motions” (what Joe called hapkido techniques, most likely because that’s what Rim, his teacher who spoke very little English, called them) which I fumbled my way through. I thanked Joe for his time and said I’d like to come back to which he politely implied that he would allow that to happen.
My martial art journey started in spurts. I’d go to one class and then I would’t go back until the next week. I’d do two classes and then I’d skip a week. No one said anything to me, but one day I realized that I was being taught exactly the same techniques every time I showed up and I was not getting better at them. I couldn’t remember one from the other. I couldn’t make my body do what was being asked of it. Consistency and dedication, it occurred to me, were required if I was to make any progress at all. Discipline, I lacked. Discipline, I needed. So I doubled-down.
At this point in my life, I didn’t drive. I lived in Annapolis, MD and I took the bus where I couldn’t walk to. This was a conscious decision on my part and the time I spent living downtown is still one of my fondest memories. All these years later, I’m still really a martial arts, coffee shops, and street food kind of person. If I walked to the dojang, it took me about an hour. If I took the bus, it only took about fifteen minutes, but I still had to walk to the bus stop, wait for the bus, and then walk to the dojang from the bus stop, usually extremely early for class because late was not something I was willing to be, so the bus was about an hour total as well. It was all worth it. I started going to every single class available to me. At that time, that meant I tried to attend class Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday morning. In spite of myself, I started to get pretty good, at least relative to where I was when I started and relative to the folks who were less consistent than me.
Years later, after Joe and I became very close, he told me that he never expected me to come back after the first day, but he was glad I did. He also explained that I had a nickname in the dojang because of my long hair, beard, and my all black wardrobe. I was Rasputin and Joe let me train because I reminded him of himself when he was “younger and full of shit.” I still laugh when I think about how ridiculous I must have appeared and I’m still grateful that Joe saw past my facade and humored me long enough to call me “little brother.”
Robert Van Valkenburgh, Co-Founder of Kogen Dojo & Taikyoku Mind and Body