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McNary assistant principal moonlights in the dojo

Rhonda Rhodes, an assistant principal at McNary High School, instructs Rosemary Kirk, top, and Ilari Ramirez. (KEIZERTIMES/Derek Wiley)
Rhonda Rhodes, an assistant principal at McNary High School, instructs Rosemary Kirk, top, and Ilari Ramirez. (KEIZERTIMES/Derek Wiley)

Of the Keizertimes

Rhonda Rhodes, an assistant principal at McNary High School, remembers life before she was introduced to Jiu-Jitsu as a college student at Oregon State.

“I was one of those people that was capable but I’m certain I had ADHD before they diagnosed it,” Rhodes said. “When I was in school in the ’80s and early ’90s, that wasn’t a thing and if it was, I’m sure they would have decided that I had that. I had a lot of potential and I didn’t quite have the self control to reach it. Martial arts was the first thing that I really wanted bad enough to learn those skills and become self disciplined.”

After taking her first martial arts class at age 19, Rhodes was working out six days a week in between Corvallis and Salem by the time she graduated. Rhodes moved to Boston in 2004, joined a boxing gym and then began teaching lessons.

Her combined experiences have made her an ideal Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) judge for the Oregon State Athletic Commission. But she’s never competed in the octagon herself.

“By the time that was a popular mainstream thing for women to do, I was mid to upper 30s and had already had two reconstructive knee surgeries,” Rhodes said. “It’s something that if it would have been popular when I was 20, I would’ve loved to compete. By the time it was popularized, judging was probably a better fit for me.”

Rhodes returned to Oregon in 2007 and in 2010 decided to give back. With two friends, a physician at Salem Hospital and a software engineer, they opened Zanshin Arts, a non-profit dojo in Salem.

When designing the dojo, they thought if we could do whatever we wanted, what would we do?

“What’s probably the coolest part of it, when you open up your own space and you have your own class, you can kind of do whatever you want,” Rhodes said. “Our children’s class, we found out a couple of our kids had never been to the beach so we just took them all.”

Being a non-profit was essential and unique.

“It’s kind of unheard of,” Rhodes said. “We decided to go that route because in different places we’ve seen money do bad things to the martial arts so we’re kind of idealist. In Boston, there was a person training in the class and I thought he’s dangerous. I don’t want him touching my other students. I don’t want him here. He needs to go and the other instructor who was running that club said we need his dues. We’ve actually had great people walk through our door and I haven’t had a situation where I think someone is dangerous but if I did, they just wouldn’t be there.”

While Zanshin does have monthly memberships for those who can afford it, scholarships are also available and they don’t charge exam or belt fees.

“The belt they earn taking their exam is their gift from the dojo,” Rhodes said. “When I was going up through the ranks, I’ve paid my exam fees and then if you pass the exam, some of that fee goes toward the belt. I didn’t have this experience personally with my own schools that I trained in but I’ve seen schools where if they are low on funds, then they’ll hold a bunch of exams. It just compromises the integrity and the idealism of what you’re trying to do and your rankings and things like that. We want you to feel like you took the exam because we believe in you and knew you were ready. When you’ve been working hard and we think you’re at that level and you’re ready, we give that exam and then the belt. You’ve earned it so the dojo provides that to you. It just helps us keep the idealism and integrity intact.”

When a child passes an exam, the entire class celebrates together, usually at the Subway next door.

“No one gets better by themselves. It’s impossible,” Rhodes said. “You have teachers and training partners. We started with the children. We wanted them to be happy for each other and not jealous of each other so when there is a promotion, we take the kids next door to Subway and they all go through the line and they get treats and drinks and things there. It’s also our chance to talk to them about the way they conduct themselves in public. They’re wearing their uniforms so they represent us and they always show impeccable manners. That’s a way for them to have self control outside of our environment even though it’s right next door. But it’s fun and they enjoy it.”

Zanshin also encourages its kids to be charitable. One year, they sponsored a family at McNary, raised $1,000, bought them all presents and delivered them.

Rhodes and her colleagues spent about a year and half looking for, designing and then building a space. Contractors did most of the work but the educator, doctor and software engineer built the 1,600 square football mat with spring floor underneath themselves.

“I had bleeding fingers from building it,” Rhodes said. “When we bought our space, the exterior of the building was done but the floor was just gravel so we got to design it. It’s the most fun place. It’s a playground for us. All of the different bags and equipment we have for striking, any strike you might want to practice, whether it’s a flying knee or a dropping elbow, we’ve got a striking station for that.  We thought what do you want to do and what would be the perfect way to practice that and we bought it. It was kind of our labor of love. We have the coolest bags that you can weave under. We have uppercuts and knees and elbows. We have all this great equipment.”

Zanshin, which translates to “focus” in Japanese, offers classes for both children and adults, emphasizing self discipline, control, confidence and behavior.

“Sometimes I look at our kids and we’ll get a kid that maybe an outsider will think is a total spaz and I know that was me,” Rhodes said. “So when we work with that kid over time and they learn how to control themselves, I know that’s going to affect every part of their lives because I know it did for me. We’ll get kids with bad attitudes. I was certainly capable of having an attitude. Saying whatever you feel like doesn’t get you very far and learning the right times to say the right things does so as we teach that to our kids. I feel like I can give them what someone else volunteered and gave their time to me. That keeps us going.”