About one and a half years ago, my oldest daughter decided that her siblings were having too much fun, and she decided to take up Taekwondo as well. On a whim, I jumped into class with her. It’s been a wild ride. Am I still the parent when my child, who outranks me, is teaching class?  I have spent years and years of my life pursuing higher education goals, so I thought I knew what it means to be a student. This is different though. I have learned so many things about myself: good and bad and in-between.

Yesterday, I tested for my senior green belt. I still don’t know if I passed or not (I failed to line up correctly in the first 5 minutes of the test). Since I’ve always been a very good student, this is a new kind of “uncomfortable” for me. Overall, the test wasn’t especially long or rigorous, as I was participating in a group of younger kids with lower belt ranks; however, it was hard in other ways. Pass or fail, Taekwondo has been good for me, and here’s why.

It allows me to separate my own emotions and insecurities from my children

For most of our Taekwondo years, I have been one of the parents sitting and watching as my kids were put through the trials of each belt test. If you’ve been there, then you know. If you’re thinking about starting this journey, let me just tell you that IT’S HARD! If you find a good dojang, your kids will be tested in the most profound ways. They will be put on the spot, questioned, pushed, and forced to a place where they must decide whether they will quit or persevere. Sometimes they will give in to the pressure and things won’t go their way, but more often they’ll succeed in surprising ways. I have experienced so many moments of sheer helplessness as I watched my daughter forget her poomsae, or my son struggle to answer a question. However, those moments pale in comparison to the “other” moments, the ones when I stand in awe at how they handle themselves. I have a tendency to underestimate them because they’re young. It’s so good for me to realize they have a huge reservoir of potential, and when I am willing to stand back, they will tap into it.

Yesterday, though, I wasn’t on the sidelines. I was in the middle of it all. My son was also testing, and I watched his feet touching the fire, but I was too busy trying to calm my own nerves to worry too much about his choices. He was on his own, and that was freeing for him and for me. After all, his successes are his, not mine, as are his failures. I will forever be his greatest cheerleader, but it helped me to see that he doesn’t need me to be. I’m grateful for that.

It has helped me realize that I still have a lot of growing (up) to do

Prior to this belt test, I relaxed in the knowledge that I was new. I wasn’t supposed to know much. Who can blame me? I’m just a white belt…yellow belt…green belt. Wait, what? Suddenly, yesterday, I was faced with the reality that not only did I have “grown up” responsibilities on the mat, but I was one of the higher belt ranks testing. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but that came as a shock to me. I don’t think I had thought forward far enough to contemplate the idea that going up in belt rank came with a new set of responsibilities—rules even. It’s not that I fear responsibility. I am an adult after all. THIS, though, THIS is a type of responsibility that is new to me. You see, I’m a finely honed introvert. It’s an art, and I practice it well. I like to lead quietly, from the shadows. Suddenly, though, I found myself on the mat being asked to lead LOUDLY.  I felt a certain kinship with the five year olds on the mat because I really didn’t know if I had it in me. I was revisiting what it means to experience new concepts, to have an “ah ha!” moment. It was one of those rare times when you make a realization that later seems so obvious, yet it was inconceivable just a moment before. It was strange. It was freeing. I liked it and was sobered by it at the same time.

Speaking of being sober, Taekwondo is not a quiet sport. It took several months for me to kihap without feeling I would die of embarrassment. Though I did get over that, it’s still not my style to attract attention to myself. In my life, I have succeeded by focusing on the matter at hand, quietly, and usually on my own. However, yesterday I realized that I couldn’t succeed unless we all succeeded, and as a higher rank belt it was my job to know that. This all sounds so elementary, even as I write it, but all you introverts out there will likely relate. Sometimes we have to be loud.

It has helped me find my way toward aging more gracefully

This is an ongoing theme in my head. That is, how much does my age matter when participating in martial arts (or life in general)? Well, I can tell you, it DOES matter. I’m slower, less agile, more easily injured, less willing to “jump into the fray”, and more willing to discount the importance of persevering, simply because the outcome in no way defines my day-to-day existence (I’m “old”, after all). Nonetheless, it turns out that in the most salient ways, my age really is not that pertinent. When I initially started Taekwondo, I was at a point in my life in which I had reconciled myself to the idea that it was “all downhill from here”. Each ache was just confirmation, and I was convinced that there was nothing I could do but try and accept the inevitable with a smile. Despite that attitude, I was still rather shocked by the reality of being in my 40s and attempting basic martial arts techniques. This was my wake-up call. I am now determined NOT to slide so easily into an “elderly” life style.

So, age is not completely irrelevant, overall. However, yesterday, at that belt test, my age did seem irrelevant. I’m convinced that I felt as nervous, vulnerable, and unsure of myself as some of the white belts. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that a few of those young white belts put me to shame. I was, in essence, a newbie as well—a youngster. That’s a wild, bewildering feeling after being a parent for so long. Yet, it was good for me. I remember now what that was like—being young I mean.