Dear Reader: For the remainder of 2021, to continue celebrating the release of my first book Kicking and Screaming: a Memoir of Madness and Martial Arts, I will be posting a monthly bonus chapter. While these stories didn’t make the final cut, they were still important moments in my life and in my black belt journey. Enjoy!
[Note: This would have occurred between chapters 28 “Black Belt Candidate” and 29 “Sucker Punched”]
“Up-downs,” Chief Instructor Alex said calmly, widening his blue eyes and smiling wickedly. It was the first Monday in April, the first class day after my bo dan test, and our Sabumnim must have decided he was going to whip us into shape, black belt style. We had two new bo dans (myself and a younger female student), a teenage bo dan who recently tested for black belt and would likely be awarded his new belt in a few days, and Eric, a teenage black belt who would be testing for second degree in the fall. You would think a class of only high-ranking students would be deadly-serious, mature, and determined. I had apparently forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager.
“Well if I’m a country boy than you’re an Indian boy…dot, not casino,” Eric blurted out with seemingly no provocation. Alex and I gaped at him while the young bo dan girl fidgeted in the back.
“Your sentence just got worse and worse as it went on,” Alex said in disbelief, trailing his hand downward to indicate his point.
“He called me a country boy. I’m from Texas so I guess I am,” Eric continued, pointing the other student in question, who just shrugged and shook his head. My instructor and I both argued that (1) we didn’t hear the other student call him a “country boy” (2) being from Texas doesn’t necessarily make one a “country boy” (3) the two of us were from rural west Texas towns so if anyone could be considered “country” it would be us and (4) the “Indian” comment—dude!! It fell on deaf ears.
I looked back and forth to the two teens in amazement, wondering how I ever found high school boys to be cute and charming.
We returned to our regularly scheduled warm-up of torture. We did twenty up-downs (also known as “burpees,” which involve jumping up in the air, doing a squat-thrust, and jumping up again), yelling loudly each time we bounced into the air. The teenage boys flopped and stumbled and gasped on either side of me, so my young female classmate and I had a little breathing break while the boys were forced to finish their set. The process repeated itself with knuckle push-ups.
“We’re waiting,” snapped Alex, glaring at the boys on either side of me. They had both collapsed onto the floor before we even began our set of push-ups. While he continued giving them the evil eye I remained quietly upright in plank position, silently thanking my chaturanga-loving yoga teacher and years of lap swimming for strong arms, shoulders, and back.
“Sir, I don’t have the upper body strength to continue,” Eric whined, splayed on the floor. He was at least six feet tall and had been taking taekwondo classes for several years, so it was hard to believe he was that out of shape. I suppressed a giggle while Alex ranted about how everyone should be doing some kind of exercise outside of class. I suspected my classmate’s sudden delicate state was less of a truly debilitating physical condition and closer to a similar stunt I pulled when I was a child and taking taekwondo back in Snyder.
My mom was driving us to class one winter night, and mysteriously my brother and I were both suddenly struck with blinding headaches and nausea, supposedly from the blinking Christmas lights we saw on the houses along the way. Exasperated, my mother drove us home and warned us that we’d better not pull that act next time. I wasn’t sick; I just didn’t want to go to class. Funny, now that I had the power to choose whether to attend or not, I looked forward to taekwondo class all day. What a difference it made as a student who was there by choice verses the ones who were dragged there forcefully by their mothers and away from their precious video games.
“I do this because I care!” Chief Instructor Alex cried above our pants and gasps as we moved on to running, jumping, and kicking drills. It brought some comic relief but was little consolation for an intense workout. I finally had to invoke the “over- thirty rule” and revert from jump turning back side kicks back to regular grounded kicks. My quads were swollen and numb by this point. I thought about when I ran my last half marathon, how I willed my burned-out legs to keep pumping so I could finish in the time I wanted and dug into my last stores of strength and endurance. (I did finish the half marathon faster than my goal time with the help of caffeinated gel and sheer stubbornness although I couldn’t walk for two days afterwards.)
I dragged myself home, took a cold shower followed by a cold Epsom salt bath, popped two ibuprofens, choked down a Powerbar and some Gatorade, and collapsed. I woke up feeling like I’d been hit by a truck. Still groggy from sleep, I smiled.
Black belt training had officially begun.
Things could only go up from here, right?