When I was growing up, I begged my mom to enroll me in Karate. (The Karate Kid was just out, and I wanted to do the wax-on, wax-off thing.) For reasons I didn't understand at the time, she flatly refused.
Perspectives change. Pondering the thought of parenting rambunctious boys well-trained in the martial arts certainly doesn't sound appealing to me now. I can see now, with my mothers eyes, little-boy-Matt karate chopping little-brother-Ryan. Dad-Matt sides with his mother.
But we don't have boys. We have girls. And when parents of little girls imagine their martial-arts-trained girls, it seems to be different. I want my girls to be able to defend themselves. Fortunately for me, Anna is interested in this as well. This year we enrolled her in the Taekwon-Do program at her school.
It is the first disciplined activity that Anna really enjoys. We've had her in ballet, tap dancing, and gymnastics -- the quintessential little girl activities -- but she didn't really take to any of them. But she loves Taekwon-Do.
Last Saturday Anna had her first promotion test.
A promotion test is a public event during which each student is examined by one or more blackbelts to see if she displays enough mastery of her current level, and is ready to advance a level. In Anna's case, she was testing to advance from "white belt" to "white belt, yellow stripe."
The belt test took place at a nearby gymnasium. There were well over one hundred kids there, along with three dozen instructors and hundreds of parents. The parents sat quietly in folding chairs lining three of the four walls. Before the fourth wall was a row of tables, with the black belts seated behind them. As soon as I entered the gym, my heart started racing. For some reason, I had expected something small, calm, low-key. Instead, this was an ordeal!
The children were encouraged to warm up, and for nearly thirty minutes I watched Anna stretching, running and practicing. I met her instructor and a few of her fellow classmates. I nervously chatted with a few nearby parents, trying to discover what my child was about to go through.
At 2:3o, after the warmup was completed, the grand master (which, I gather, is someone well beyond the standard black belt) rose from his position at the table and walked to the center of the room. All of the children immediately took notice and quieted. He briefly addressed his students, giving a short (and surprisingly inspiring) speech about fortitude and self-discipline. Then he called the first group of children to the center of the room. This is when I learned about what a promotion test is really like.
He began with the smallest children. They were arranged in two rows in the center of the room, and each child was introduced to the black belt who would be evaluating her or him. Nothing was done in a rush, and to my surprise, very few of the children seemed nervous -- or hyper. They calmly stood in their places, assuming a sort of restful but respectful stance.
The grand master then led them through a long series of organized drills, during which they exercised each of the skills being evaluated: punches, kicks, blocks, stances, and so on. I counted one type of punch, three types of kick, and three types of block. Some of these drills were performed with a partner. In others, the children rotated as they performed the motions: punch forward, rotate ninety degrees, punch, rotate, and so on. I realized later that this allowed the black belts to examine technique from multiple angles.
Anna performed all of her moves admirably. Her dramatic flair is helpful, I think. Her motions are very crisp and deliberate. At one point, her robe came untied, and a helpful red belt had to step in and re-tie it. None of this phased Anna (or anyone else) in the least.
After the drills came the big surprise.
The students formed a line on one side of the gym, and the grand master crouched on a mat at the other end. A moment later, a red belt rushed over to him holding a light brown rectangle about two feet long, eight inches wide, and a half-inch thick. The grand master held it before him in a braced position, and instructed the first child to come. The child ran across the gym, jumping into the air as he approached his master, and flung out his foot before him. As he hit the object, he bounced back and landed on the mat.
At first, I thought the object was some kind of plastic plate to practice kicking, but after the first child made three kicks, the second child sprinted down the floor and put her foot through the rectangle. The loud familiar snap identified it as a board. A seven year old had just kicked through a piece of wood. The crowd went wild.
Over the course of the next thirty minutes I watched child after child take a shot at their boards. Each one got three shots. Anna was at the end of a group of around 40. When it was finally her turn, only three or four children before her had broken the board (though almost all of them had given their board a solid kick).
Anna's first attempt showed her to be a good jump, and a solid kick. But the board didn't yield. My heart was in my throat. There was nothing I wanted more at that moment than to see her snap the board in half.
As she sprinted across the floor, I could see her determination. She jumped into the air, yelled "set" (or whatever the Taekwon-Do yell is), and thrust her foot out. A loud crack split the air, and the crowd cheered. Anna had split her board, and she was absolutely radiant.
After bowing to the board of black belts, she turned back to her grand master, who rewarded her with her broken trophy. Anna glowed. I'm pretty sure I glowed. As a father, it was a chance to relish a moment. I saw my child succeed, and I knew that it was the result of hard work on her part.
And it is cool, I admit, to have a second grader who can kick through a solid piece of wood.
It was a big opportunity for Anna to experience the result of self-discipline and hard work. She earned her new belt, and she seems to be just a little more enthusiastic about taking responsibility on her homework and other tasks. Since then, I have been working hard at something, too. I'm looking for a sign that says, "My daughter can kick a hole in your honor student's desk."