Growing up in the tough part of town on the mean streets of Paterson, NJ, Mike Skinner learned young how to take care of himself. “I pretty much grew up in the ghetto when I was a little kid,” he says. “I was fighting every day; you had to fend for yourself.” So when his family moved to Highland when Skinner was only nine years old, you’d think it might have been a relief. But coming from the city mentality to the country back in 1978, he says, “It felt like there was nothing to do here. I was bored.” Then one day, walking around New Paltz with some friends, Skinner came upon a karate school. “I saw what was going on and I thought, ‘wow, that looks great.’ And ever since then, I’ve been hooked.”
Attracted to the discipline and respect that underlie the martial arts, Skinner began to study in earnest. When his parents separated in 1983 and decided to leave the area, he moved in with his karate instructor in New Paltz. “I became the uchi-deshi, the live-in student apprentice. I lived in the dojo, the karate school; that was pretty much my life. I would sleep there, get up in the morning and go to New Paltz High School all day, then I’d come home and have about an hour break to do my homework. Then I’d teach the kids’ class, and after about a half hour break for dinner, my instructor would teach me in the evening classes.”
After graduating from high school, Skinner began running the dojo in New Paltz. He also worked as a fitness instructor in a health club and later owned his own gym for ten years. He even did a stint at True Value Hardware as a warehouse manager. But karate was always at the forefront for Skinner, and he’s owned and operated his own dojo for ten years now on Route 44/55 in Clintondale.
A teacher of karate since 1985, Skinner is an eighth degree black belt. There are ten levels of black belt altogether, he explains, with his instructor, Shigeru Oyama, at the top spot, a soshu (grand master and founder of the organization), followed by Shigeru’s brother, Yasuhiko Oyama, a ninth degree black belt. The two brothers, Tokyo natives, co-founded the World Oyama organization in 1985 and still serve as directors for the 150 dojos in 19 countries operating under its principles, including Skinner’s World Oyama dojo. Skinner’s designation is shihan, or master. But even he still trains with the soshu, attending clinics held every three months.
Skinner currently trains some 40 adults in Clintondale. His assistant, Daniel Paradies, who teaches another 20 or so students in the kids’ and beginner classes, has trained with Skinner since the age of six. The dojo offers opportunities to train outside of the building, as well, in scenic locations like Minnewaska State Park and beach training at Sherwood Island State Park in Connecticut. There are numerous group activities, including a dojo sleepover in the winter and various camping trips and barbecues. Skinner also brings his students to several tournaments a year and they do demonstrations at events like the recent Spring Fest in Highland.
Mike Skinner is married, his wife a nurse at Westchester Medical Center. They have 22-year-old twins; his son earning a degree in graphic arts at SUNY New Paltz and his daughter just accepted to a master’s program in nursing. His stepdaughter is a teacher in the Bronx working with inner city kids, which kind of brings his life full circle to his early beginnings in Paterson, Skinner says.
Recently New Paltz Times sat down with Shihan Skinner to ask him a bit more about what a day’s work is like for a karate instructor running a dojo.
Is there such a thing as a typical day for you?
Not really; they vary. We have classes six days a week. Our open classes are for everybody, with white belts [beginners] and black belts in the same class. Our philosophy is that everyone can learn something from anyone; a white belt can teach a black belt just as much as the other way around.
How so? What could a trained person get from a beginner?
A beginner is not going to have the control, or the technique. They’re going to be a little wilder than someone who’s been training. For example, if you’re a trained fighter, you would punch in a straight line. If you’re not a trained fighter, you might just swing. So for someone who has the knowledge to deal with that, you learn from the different angles and things coming at you, uncontrolled. If you’re only working with others at your level, you get into a rut.
We also have parents training with their children in the children’s classes. I probably have three mothers that train with their sons, and four or five fathers that train with their kids. It’s a great learning experience. I like that the children are usually the seniors to their parents in the classes, because they started first. We go by rank, no matter what your age or sex; if you have a higher rank, you’re their senior. But I always remind the kids, ‘Don’t forget, your parents are in charge at home!’
What do you like most about your work?
Watching the kids grow and mature and get confident. The best thing about this is watching them grow from little kids who are very shy and insecure and see them grow into someone able to do anything as an adult.
What personal attributes do you think are necessary to do your line of work?
You have to be a hard worker, and you have to have goals in mind for what you want for your students. The way I teach is not about the money. You find so many commercial schools out there that are about having as many students as you can and pushing them along, just handing out belts. But it’s quality I look for. I would take any of my mid-rank students to any school in the area and match them against their black belts; I guarantee my students would do better.
Is there a most memorable day that stands out for you in your career?
Probably when I first got my black belt; that was a very memorable day. I had to free fight for over an hour straight against a new person who would step in every few minutes so they were always fresh. And they had all the heavyweight champions, lightweight and full contact champions there and I had to fight them all, one after another. That and my first knockdown where I went to Alabama to fight in a tournament at age 17 and I did very well… that was a big event for me.
What makes for a really good day?
A great workout, and proving yourself on a daily basis.
Has the field changed since you began?
Yes! Back when I started, it was pretty brutal. Very intense. The shihans would actually hit you with sticks 30 years ago. It’s come down a lot since then; you’re not going to get a beating anymore! We’re still pretty strict, but it’s softened without making it commercial. We’re still a hardcore school, but it’s not brutal.
Has technology affected your business in any way?
Other than the way we communicate with people, there have been zero changes from technology. You leave the technology outside when you come in the door. At the beginning of classes we do a short meditation to clear your mind, and you just focus on your training, on what you do here. At the end we do mokuso yame (stop meditation) and come back to the real world.
Do you see yourself doing this ten years from now?
Forever ’til I die! I’ll do this until the day I’m no longer able to.
What would you be doing for a living if not this?
Fishing! Something outdoors… and with children. It would be something like a summer camp setting with groups of kids. The outdoors and children are the two greatest things.
What advice would you give someone going into this field?
My biggest advice would be to believe in what you’re teaching. I see too much commercial stuff going on where there’s no real purpose in what they’re teaching. People think they’re black belts and they can control a situation, but they’re not really learning the skills and it’s a false sense of security. My big thing is to make sure that all my students have an actual sense of what their abilities are. You want them to try to prevent getting into a bad situation, but if it does happen, you want to make sure they can handle it.