My oldest son, Max, earned his black belt this summer. What a feeling of pride for me to see him, at such a young age, follow in my footsteps. When he was seven, my wife and I took him to the same dojo I had trained in when I was a kid. The dojo had changed hands several times in twenty years, but it was still in my home town and run by people who were students when I was there. Confident with the instructors, I turned him over and took a step back. I told him I was there if he ever needed help but that he would have to come to me and ask for it.
During the years that he trained he rarely asked for my help. This was his path and he walked it on his own, earning each rank without me. His black belt test came early this summer, right after his thirteenth birthday. School was out and he went into the summer holding his head high as he was on the honor roll… again. He and his mom were meeting their friends every Wednesday at the beach and our lawn was lush with green grass providing him with a perfect spot for extra practice. Rarely, however, did I see him out there. I waited, thinking that his nerves would finally talk him into asking his Dad for help, but he never came to me.
The week leading up to the test, he would announce daily that he was nervous. I reminded him that I was there for him if he needed me. He just said, “I think I’m good Dad.” The day of the test finally came. I wished him luck before I left for work. The test would run late enough so that I could pick him up after work and be the first to congratulate him. We scheduled a celebratory dinner that night with his grandparents at a local Chinese restaurant – a tradition that they had started when I was a kid. My work day went slow as my mind kept racing to the end of the day when I would pick up my black belt son.
My wife and I pulled into an almost empty parking lot with our youngest in the back seat. All the lower ranks had tested and were already off celebrating in their way. It was so quiet we assumed the test was done and Max was waiting inside for us. I went into the dojo alone to find an empty mat. What would be silence was cut by serious murmurs from the office on the second floor. I normally would have headed up the flight of stairs to our office and greeted everyone, but this day I was a parent more than an instructor so I took a seat in the parent room and waited. Besides, this was his moment and I would let him have it to the very end. Finally, he descended the stairs. He wasn’t smiling. He had failed.
I can’t imagine what it was like for him, even with my hands off approach, to have the additional pressure of a black belt dad. He had even seen me earn a second black belt only a year before his test. Now he had to face me having failed. My thirteen year old son who had already surpassed me in height broke down in tears. We still had dinner with my parents that night but it was rough.
Max had always worked hard at anything he did, but things came easy enough to him where he never had to throw in that extra push that some kids do. He had failed his black belt test because he needed that extra push and hadn’t put in the extra work. To the credit of our dojo they would not pass someone that wasn’t ready… even if that person’s dad was one of the instructors.
It’s one thing to pick yourself up and fight when someone else pushes you down. You get right up fuelled by anger and ready to fight. But, when you’re the one responsible for your own fall, when you trip over your own feet, it’s quite another thing. It’s embarrassing and most people just want to crawl off and hide. Not a martial artist, not a black belt, not my son.
In the car that day that was the conversation we had. I told him once again that I was here for him if he needed me but it was up to him to come up with a plan and ask me for help. Some of his friends had come to me for private lessons in order to prepare for their tests. He could do the same but would have to schedule it just like they did.
He approached me and two other instructors for extra help. He put together a schedule and we worked all summer on his forms and sparing. He went to class as often as he could, held his head high and worked hard. At the end of the ummer he tested again and earned his black belt. I was more proud of him because of the difficulty he had and the way he met failure head on to achieve his goal. If he could do that there was nothing that could get in his way and stop him.
Last week he came to me and told me his math and Spanish grades were slipping. He’d had trouble on a few tests. “I’ve emailed both my teachers and I’m going in for extra help, Dad,” he said. I didn’t have to say a word. Why would I? He’s a black belt and that’s how they handle things. Those are the truly valuable skills a martial artist learns on the mat. I hope he never has to use what he knows to defend himself and I’m glad to know he’ll use what he knows every day to succeed.