I walk down the line of students on the wall, shaking hands with everyone, looking them in the eyes with a smile. I tell each of them good job, they each say thank you for the class. We are all in order of belt rank along the wall during the class, a fairly new formality for our academy. As I walk down the line I start with the senior belts and move down to the very beginners. They all follow suit and by the end everyone in the class has shaken hands with the rest of the group.
Once I reach the end of the line I call out everyone to grab a broom. Like a row of combines clearing a field of grain, we sweep the mat -one following the other until all the hair and dust from the class is pushed to the end of the mat. Following behind is the garden sprayer filled with cleaning solution with a line of moppers close behind. The process is over and done in less than 5 minutes.
We started this new process when we upgraded our academy a few years back. It has worked very well and has now become part of the culture. Everyone sweeps and mops the mat regardless of belt rank. For the whole group it represents an attitude of cleanliness and unity that is extremely important in a jiu-jitsu academy. For me it represents much more.
Whenever I grab a broom or mop and start in, almost always someone of lower rank attempts to take it from me. “Professor, I got this.”, or “Black belts shouldn’t have to mop”, “You’ve already paid your dues”. Sometimes I will allow them to take it if there is something else that needs done (if there is a new student I need to connect with, someone walks in the front door, or change someone’s credit card information, etc.). I truly appreciate the offers, but I mostly refuse. It is a small way to lead by example. To show I am no better than them. That even though I have a higher belt that I am not above cleaning the mat. And in very small increments paying back what I have taken in the past.
When I first moved to Columbus to train at the academy, it took me some time to get on my feet. I was already in debt from school and the job I got waiting tables had not bore much fruit at the beginning. I would stop in from time to time at the academy and pay a drop in fee but I didn’t have the money to pay the monthly tuition right away. When I could pay, it was sometimes late in the month.
I had taken a little time off because of the money situation, but I found out about an in-house tournament. If I won the in-house tournament I would qualify for the Inter-Association in California. Grandmaster Helio Gracie would be there. Even though I didn’t have the money to pay that month and wasn’t able to train, I had to enter. I showed up and qualified. Afterwards, my instructor Jeff asked where I had been. I told him about my situation and he offered me an opportunity to mop the mats after classes and he would sponsor my training. With the condition that I do it consistently. He even paid for my ticket to California and hotel with the condition that I pay him back. It did take me some time, but I eventually paid him back.
At first I mopped the mats after every class. Others would help but mostly it was just me. It was my responsibility and I took pride in it at first. Over time though I became less frequent with my duties. I would feel guilty about it but I would make an excuse in my head, “I’ll just do it before class next time, I’ll be late for work, it doesn’t look that dirty, etc.” Looking back I see now that there were times that I took advantage of the situation. There were no good excuses. I was taking advantage of a situation that was a priceless gift. The gift of jiu-jitsu.
We all have things in our past we wish we could have done better. One of the gifts I have gained from the experiences on the mat and the influences of my mentors is to not dwell on the past. I’m not that person any more. I’ve gotten better at jiu-jitsu as well as life. Through a long pursuit of more effectiveness and efficiency on the mat, we learn invaluable lessons about life, lessons that are hard to see at the beginning, but reveal themselves over a long time of perfecting an art. In the pursuit of perfection in jiu-jitsu you learn to pursue perfection in life. My jiu-jitsu is not perfect, and neither is my life, but I am getting better every day. When I pick up a broom or a mop and join in the cleaning duties, it’s more than leading by example, it’s my little way each day to pay back in my mind what was given to me that I can never fully repay.
Relson Gracie Black Belt