What Tae Kwon Do Means to Me
Black Belt Essay
In the last few months, I've told a number of friends and family members that I'm testing for a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Most people have responded with surprise, amazement, even shock. "A Black Belt??!!" they say. "Really?" And then they laugh.
Why are they laughing, anyway? Well, first of all, anyone who knew me the first 18 or so years of my life would know I started life as a certified wimp. In school, I was that skinny blonde girl who was picked last for kickball, dodge ball, relay races, and even jump rope. I hated sports. I was terrible at them. I was a wimp.
In Tae Kwon Do, I've put that "wimp" label behind me. Over the past two years, I've been challenged to push myself physically every time I come to class. I never know when I'm going to face one of Ms. Prior's across-the-floor workouts or Master Hughes's roundhouse kicking drills.
Being an ex-wimp, I've never thought of myself as a fighter--I'm a dancer! In fact, there have been times when the words "fighting stance, Chum Be"--the words that begin sparring--have sent terror through me. I never thought I'd learn to love sparring. But Bob, one of our former students who was also a boxer said to me once: "Don't fight: spar." There's a difference. Once I realized that sparring takes finesse and speed, not anger and bare aggression, I've found that I can do it. In fact, now I love to spar.
But when most people think of a black belt, they think of someone not just fit, but also big and strong, and, let's face it, male. Lots of people think that if you're small and female, like me, you're not cut out for a male-dominated, fighting-oriented activity, like Tae Kwon Do. People like me, well, we just don't have the power for it.
In the past, I might have agreed. But in Tae Kwon Do, I've learned that I do have power, even though I don't have sheer bulk. The power comes from up here [head], as well from down here [belt]. Besides helping me become physically stronger, Tae Kwon Do has helped me learn to focus when I'm performing, to be in the moment, rather than worrying about the past or future. I've found that if I can focus, I can be very powerful. I've even been known to break boards with my hands and feet. Last fall, I competed in a few tournaments and have brought home firsts in breaking, sparring, and forms.
So can I finally say I'm no longer a wimp?
Another reason people seem surprised about the black belt test is the fact that I am 44 years old. I began learning Tae Kwon Do when I was 42, an age when many people start to slow down a bit physically, start to take it easy. I'm not slowing down, but I have had to learn to listen to my body. Unlike certain junior belts, I can't walk into the dojang and immediately do the splits. And unlike a certain 18-year-old instructor, I can't end a 90-minute class with another 10 minutes of intense cardio and push-ups.
But the nature of Tae Kwon Do is that everyone can work to her or his own potential--and that their potential will gradually increase. Everyone starts Tae Kwon Do feeling awkward and stiff. Everyone finds learning the first form incredibly challenging. And if I need to warm up with yoga stretches before starting class, or do "girl" push ups, or keep my front kicks low because I've pulled a hamstring again, that's OK. The most amazing thing is, through practice, I can keep up amazingly well, and I can do all the things I need to do.
Here's another reason why I might not have been here today. Many of you know that my parents passed away this winter within a month of each other. It's been a hard winter for me--physically, emotionally, and mentally. But coming back to this place has been an unexpected comfort in my life. You all have comforted me in your own ways--through notes, cards, donations, hugs. But you haven't just comforted me. You've all gently encouraged me to continue on--and I have. You have always brought out the best in me.
I guess, then that one of the most surprising things about Tae Kwon Do has always been you, my fellow students. When I started this class, I didn't do it to make lots of close friends, to become part of a group of supportive, fun, diverse, people. But I have.
I think I must have needed this group of friends--now more than ever. I certainly can't imagine life without you now: you feel like family to me. Maybe you didn't want another sister: too bad. You've got one. I think my parents would feel glad that you're here for me.
So to all of you who helped me through, I'd like to offer my heartfelt thanks, a big Kam Sam Ni Da. To Master Hughes, thank you for the generosity, kindness, and enthusiasm that fuel your teaching and inspire us all. To Ms. Prior, my role model in martial arts, thank you for the way you challenge me and inspire me to be my best. To Mr. Wasson, thank you for always finding time for an extra practice with me, and for being such great company, especially when we went to the tournaments this fall. To Mr. Houtz, thanks for getting me started in martial arts. To the August Black Belt crew: Pam, Jim, Brian Aller, June, and Patrick. You guys have been an inspiration to me--I loved watching your test! Thanks for all for your help as I practiced for my own test today. To Brian Been, my belt brother, thank you for your friendship, your sense of humor, and for towing me along in your wake when I didn't have the energy to do it on my own. To all the kids at the dojang, big and small--thanks for the handshakes and hugs, for saying "Jane, guess what?" and for listening when I have to teach class. And to my family, the biggest thank you of all. Thank you Bruce, for putting up with this strange interest of mine, especially when it meant my being gone during suppertime twice a week plus Saturday mornings for two years. Thank you Robbie, for taking pictures at so many tests. And thanks, Eli, for showing me that little people can be good at sparring.
I look forward to my test today, and to continuing on as a black belt in this school. Kam Sam Ni Da, everyone.