“You’re a good student. You have spirit,” Grandmaster said on Thursday, referring to the “taekwondo spirit” of integrity and perseverance. I was perched on a chair in front of the desk in his office discussing Friday’s bo dan test and paying him for the upcoming months’ lessons.
“Do you want to be an instructor?”
“Yes, sir, I do,” I said eagerly but softly, suddenly feeling very shy. I was reminded of when I turned in my testing form for red belt nearly a year ago and he talked about the importance and responsibility that comes with that rank. The red belt test and my very first test, during which I jumped from white belt to green belt, were both important milestones in my taekwondo journey. Friday’s test would be the third and final significant color belt test. The weight of it settled onto my shoulders but not in an oppressive way. It was a firm but gentle pressure, an invisible voice whispering, “You can do this.”
Yesterday my Friday was a whirlwind of meetings and project tweaking, which made the hours fly by and keep my mind off the test. I went home a little early and exchanged one identity for another as I peeled off my poofy retro-silouetted dress, designer belt and heels and donned a pair of workout pants and my lucky testing shirt, a faded black tank from the GAP.
I had a quiet half hour at home before I had to leave so I went through a pre-test ritual to calm my body. I had an icy glass of gingerale to settle my stomach and cool down my core. My commute home was a half hour drive straight into the bright afternoon Texas sun, so for good measure I stuffed a soft cloth ice pack down the front of my shirt. It both cooled down my skin and calmed my nerves. I kept the ice pack on my chest and neck while I washed my face and splashed it with a mix of rosewater and glycerin, meticulously groomed my eyebrows, slicked back my hair, and reapplied some liquid liner into a neat cat-eye. I did a few stretches to take out the kinks in my back and hamstrings from sitting in the office all day, threw my duffel bag in the car, and drove to the dojang.
Usually I get incredibly nervous during a belt test. During other tests when I was asked Korean terminology it was all I could do to raise my voice above a shaky whisper. This time I remained calm through most of it other than a little wobble right at the end of my form (otherwise it was a pretty good performance). Maybe it was because the test was at my old familiar school with my familiar instructors (we have some students from branch schools test with us). Maybe it was because I trusted my body to do what I had been practicing so diligently for weeks. I figured I was as ready as I’d ever be.
The main reason I stayed calm (for the most part) was because I told myself silently to enjoy this moment, take it all in, look around and make memories. Like a final theater performance in high school or the last day of a job I was leaving on good terms, this last test was a send-off to a period of my life that I savored but was ready to let go. I may attend more color belt tests throughout my life, but never again will I be a student. I let that sink in as I settled onto the floor and smiled at the white belts throwing their blocks and punches with beginners’ zeal. I held my breath and silently sent thoughts of encouragement while my orange belt classmate did two forms for his green belt. At times I would close my eyes and take a deep breath as my time to perform got closer and closer.
“Breathe deeply and move slowly,” one of the masters advised me before the test began. I kept that in mind as I moved through my forms. While I was still a little wobbly and nervous I just reminded myself that I was in my old familiar dojang and I should enjoy them as much as I do during class. Kicks were o-kaaaay, not my best, but I know my masters and Grandmaster had seen me perform the kicks countless times before, so I figured that would work in my favor. I still performed them as best as I could and used my old dance training of laser-focused eyes for a dramatic touch.
One-steps and hand-to-hand went better than I imagined. S., a teen who is testing for black belt today, came to the test to be my partner. Even though he’s a rubbery goofball I was glad he was there since we had partnered together many times before and were very familiar with each other’s style and tendencies. After I was finished I stood quietly facing the judges’ table while the two visiting black tips finished their sets. At that moment a flush of blood, sweat, lymphatic fluid, and whatever else was in my body suddenly felt like it was coursing through me like cars on a race track. I kept my hands clasped and my eyes demurely pointed toward the floor while my face flushed with blood and sweat poured down my back. It was as if my mind was finally free to grasp the gravity of the moment. I had done the toughest part. I still had sparring and breaking, but those pieces are fun and not nearly as nerve-wracking as doing forms and one-steps in a silent room with all eyes on me.
I sparred a teenage girl from a visiting school where one of our masters teaches. I had politely introduced myself to her and her brothers beforehand to welcome her to our school and to also size her up since I would likely be fighting her. She put up a good fight that left me with a deep ache on the side of my shin. My boyfriend, a seasoned competitor in wrestling and jiu jitsu, had been telling me about the benefits of competing because you have to think quickly against a person you don’t know rather than your classmates, who tend to become predictable. While this wasn’t a competition she was a completely new partner for me, so I only had seconds to figure out what to do in the ring.
Breaking! This is the final part of the test and one of the most exciting for the students and spectators. I ended up being the last one in line, which for a moment made me panic and wonder if I’d have a repeat of the glorious pratfall from Wednesday night. The diva in me took over and was determined to make it a grand finale. The purpose of this type of breaking is for focus, precision, and speed. The boards aren’t that heavy so in theory they’re fairly easy to break although it is possible to miss, which I have done on more than one occasion. I set up my holders and slowly practiced my aim and placement. When I turned slowly for a mock spin kick Grandmaster jerked his board out of the way and flashed a grin at me as if to say, “Quit messing around and get on with it!”
Go time. I slammed my elbow into the board with a shriek, turned and kicked the crap out of the next board with a jump snap kick and whorled around to face the last board.
POP! A piece of board flew towards the mirror (and a classmates’ head) after I smacked through it with a spin kick. Everyone cheered and started laughing. I turned around to flash a silly apologetic smile at my classmate’s wife (poor guy, I threw a kick at his head during my form because I was close to the wall where he was sitting; I guess I had it out for him) and bowed to my instructors as they smirked and handed me my broken pieces.
“Bye!” one of my younger classmates said as I walked to my car. “We’re bo dans!!” she screamed. In the sky was a brilliant full moon shrouded by a pink halo. I smiled and silently basked in its glow and a deep appreciation of that evening’s test and all it meant to me.