Yesterday, before the start of the junior taekwondo class for which I’m an assistant instructor, a boy came up to me and asked for help with step sparring. He was probably in the second or third grade. He had been to the barber recently, and his hair was carefully combed back, with a little ripple right in the front that was held in place with gel. His small, wire-rimmed glasses looked relatively new, and instead of a full dobok, he was wearing his white uniform pants with one of our dojang’s T-shirts.
As usual, I was surprised that anyone would ask for my help. Although I’m a first dan black belt, there are black belts, and then there are . . . black belts. I definitely fall into the second category. In my youth, I wasn’t at all athletic or flexible. Now I have to work around a modest case of arthritis and the occasional attack of vertigo. If I were going to ask for help, I’d turn to either of the college-aged assistants in the class: the young woman who spent a large chunk of her adolescence at the dojang or the young man who is never shaken by any situation. Both are second dan black belts, a rank above me.
They’re also about the same age as my sons.
But Brad, who is quiet and sweet, came to me. He came to Mom.
* * *
I started taekwondo classes toward the end of my career as primary caregiver: a full-time mom, a mother of “children.” My oldest son was getting ready to head off for the delights of college; my younger boy was turning on me and shouting whenever I stroked his hair or called him “Sweetheart.”
I wasn’t exactly basking in the knowledge of a job well done. I hadn’t taught my boys to exercise regularly. Or at all. One of them wouldn’t eat green, leafy vegetables. The other talked on a cell phone while driving. I should have found a different guitar instructor for my older son when he was in grade school. I should have paid more attention to my younger son’s penmanship. I should have taught them to appreciate art. I should have taught them to iron shirts.
I had run out of time to convince my children that no matter how much they hated attending the church I had dragged them to for over a decade, one day they would need what they, apparently, hadn’t learned there. I had failed them in dozens of ways. Their lives, I knew, would be poorer for my ineptitude. We couldn’t go back so I could make things right.
But at the dojang, no one knew about me or about how I had failed my children. At first, my fellow students didn’t even know my name. I was just the color of my belt.
In a dojang, the newest students are white belts. They don’t have to do a great deal of thinking. They stand in one particular spot in formation. They’re told what to do and when to do it. The most initiative I took in those early months of training was getting myself to class. It was a tremendous relief after years of worrying about fevers, orthodontist appointments, and college applications. I loved taking orders and shouting, “Sir!” in response.
After I became a yellow belt, I got to stand to the left of the white belt students, but otherwise I didn’t notice much difference. As I moved up through the ranks of green belts and blue belts, I kept moving to the left when we were in formation. But I wasn’t expected to do anything beyond learning the drills and skills for my level.
At home, I had to guide young souls through gut-wrenching dilemmas with advanced placement courses, SAT prep, proms, girlfriends, college course selection, and career choices. At the dojang all I had to do was learn to pivot on one foot so I could complete a roundhouse kick, memorize dozens of positions for nine different combinations of defense routines, and spar with men.
I liked being at the dojang. I liked being there a lot.
All I wanted to do at the dojang was train. I didn’t care about rank advancement. But to keep training, you have to keep learning new material. And as you learn new material, you move up through the ranks. It’s inevitable. If you keep training in taekwondo, sooner or later you’re going to become a black belt.
Black belt students are expected to teach, if not formally, at least informally. We’re expected to pass on what we’ve learned. We’re supposed to be part of a chain of tradition stretching from the past into the future.
That is how I ended up assisting with a junior class.
On my very first day, a young boy walked up to me at the beginning of the hour and said, “I think I’m going to puke.”
Muscle memory is a term used to describe the way a highly trained body will automatically respond to a stimulus. My muscle memory for taekwondo isn’t all that good yet. My mom memory, I found out that day, is all still there. Walking sick kids to the bathroom is one thing I can do in my sleep.
I’m not very good at counting in Korean while also keeping track of kids who are working their way through the complicated moves of the nine forms we have to learn. Alone in the dojang early in the morning, I know the various positions. But when watching young bodies approximating an outside block — sometimes not even coming close — I find it all too easy to get lost, too. And whenever students say to me, “We learned to hold our fists down, not up” or “One of the other black belts said this should be a back stance,” they sound so very sure of themselves, I can’t help but think, Well . . . maybe. I could be wrong.
But when someone asks to leave the mat to go to the bathroom, I know exactly what to do.
When I first started assisting, I would hang around after class, waiting with the kids whose parents were late picking them up. For years, a big part of my job had been to keep my own boys from running out into parking lots and to protect them from being snatched by strangers. Who better to keep these particular children safe than a mom?
Sabumnim, our teacher, saw me one day and told me that I didn’t have to stay with them, that the kids could wait by themselves.
“But I can do this,” I wanted to say to him. “This is the kind of thing I’m good at.”
Soon I started thinking of the children in my class as “my kids.”
“That’s one of my kids,” I told my husband when one of the boys got his picture in the local paper for a school activity. Another time I said, “I saw a couple of my kids at the grocery store.” Once when I was baking, for just an instant, I thought about bringing some cookies into class for my kids.
But I’m a martial arts student now. The mom thing may not let me go, but I have to control it. No cookies in the dojang. No hugs when the kids are hurt. No hugs when they do well.
That is so hard.
The first children to come to me for help were two girls, lovely young sisters who, if they hadn’t been wearing doboks, would have looked as if they had stepped out of an English novel. The three of us should have been in a library book group discussing Harry Potter. Instead, they came to me for help with their turn kicks.
You could have knocked me over, I was so surprised. Why me? Why didn’t they want the instructors who were so much closer to their age, who were so much more highly skilled? And then I realized that perhaps they didn’t want help from a highly skilled young person. Maybe they wanted help from . . .
I have made so many mistakes in class. I have failed these kids in dozens of ways. I’ve shown them incorrect moves. I’ve held targets in the wrong position. I’ve missed errors that went uncorrected. Many days, I’m certain that these children are going to suffer somewhere down the line because of my ineptitude. And yet these boys and girls seek me out, even when there are far better instructors in the room.
They still line up when I tell them to. They follow my instructions during warm-up. They always say, “Yes, ma’am.” They ask if I can stay late to show them something one more time. I’ve even had kids I don’t know ask me to help them.
Somehow, these young people, training in an art form traditionally associated with men, feel the connection between me and those women in the waiting room who will take them home after class. They take one look at me and know that I have planned birthday parties and baked cupcakes for school events and made Halloween costumes. I’m someone they recognize. They know that I am a mom, and that compensates for my lack of strength and flexibility, for my modest skills. I bring something to the dojang that few of the other black belts in our school can.
I am Mom. And yesterday Brad came to me.