It was the last class. The last one he’d ever have to take.
I texted my husband: “how is it going?”
Bad, my husband responded.
An hour later, Boy Wonder walked into the house. Defeat and fear were smeared all over his face. I thought back to how it wasn’t always this way.
We ran in, dripping wet and very late, to the lobby on that December evening.
I was harried and nervous. We weren’t 5 minutes late – we were 30 minutes late, thanks to an unexpected Texas rainstorm and traffic.
I found my friend, who helped usher Boy Wonder into the studio while I was sat down to watch, big glass windows separating us.
I watched as children and adults moved as one sea of white, their bright belts the only visual interruption.
Sharp, brief, guttural shouts pierced the drone of idle conversation.
I wondered what Boy Wonder thought of it all.
My sweaty son was equal parts red-cheeked, wide-eyed and smeared all over with joy.
“Mom, this is the best thing that has ever happened in my life.”
I look at the fear now in his face and I ask what happened. My kid is getting the crap beat out of him.
He was kicked in the nuts. Kicked in the gut. Kicked in the head. By a kid 3 years and 2 heads taller than he is. Because the fact is, not many 8 year-olds outlast the 2+year commitment that it takes to achieve a black belt in TaeKwonDo. It is an older kids’ game, and those kids are his opponents.
He is on the eve of testing and he is more afraid than I have ever seen him. Afraid of getting hurt. Afraid of failing his test. Afraid of disappointing himself and his family.
This isn’t the first bump in the road that’s been his TaeKwonDo journey.
He’s had to withstand disappointing performances at tournaments.
He’s had to get through a spontaneous cross-country move and change of studios.
I hug him and say, “It’s almost done, buddy. You only need to do this one more time.”
The next day, we go through the familiar dance that is preparation for testing: meal, checking his gear bag, bringing activities for Little CEO, charging the camera, tying his belt extra tight.
We have done this dance twelve times before – every two months for the last two and a half years.
He is nervous. I am nervous, too afraid to feel relieved that this will soon be over. Because what if it’s not? What if he doesn’t pass?
As if hearing my thoughts, he asks, “What if I don’t pass, Mom?”
“We’ll deal with it if we have to. But let’s just think about today. Let’s think about how you’re going to go in there and put your fears aside one last time. You know everything you need to pass. You just have to do it. I know that you can.”
First, he must perform his form. He does it better than I’ve ever seen him do it.
Second, he must perform his contact skill. He is not asked to repeat it – a good sign.
Third, he must spar three times for 2 minutes each, once against a black belt.
“Please God, just keep him safe one last time.”
The two-minute bell can’t come soon enough for each round. He makes it through one, then two rounds. The black belt is round three.
She is at least 3 years older than Boy Wonder and at “Go!” she comes at him with a series of rapid kicks that come at him like machine gun bullets.
He defends. After 30 seconds, she begins to tire. He will be okay.
The bell rings. He walks to the side of the ring and flings himself on the mat, exhausted, but uninjured.
Finally, he must break two boards. He breaks with his hand technique on the first of three tries. He breaks with his leg technique on the second try.
He is done. Now, we must wait and hope that between now and 1:00 on Saturday, no phone call comes. Because a phone call means failure.
The call never comes.
One week later, we arrive back at the studio for what will be his last time.
He takes the black belt pledge.
His red belt is taken off, and the black one put on.
As a sign of a new chapter beginning, the promoted students throw their old belts in the air.
He takes his final bow.
His commitment and perseverance have been an inspiration to me.
A black belt is just a white belt who never quits.
But most of all, we celebrated the end of fear, and the return of joy – the joy on a 6 year-old boy’s face on that first rainy December day.