Every parent can remember those moments when your child makes you so proud you could just burst (or burst into tears) at the thought of it; those times when you simply cannot even express your profound feeling of delight in an accomplishment or a deed.
I believe those moments are to be savored and reflected upon, revisited and reinforced, so that they can be emulated and hopefully repeated in further iterations throughout the child’s life.
I had one of those moments with Batman last week.
My son and I went alone to karate that night. His sister had announced earlier that same evening that she did not want to continue with karate lessons. She had been kicked rather hard in the ribs when sparring during the prior class, and left the floor near tears and wincing with pain. She is a tough kid when it comes to riding horses but she does not enjoy being pummeled, and though she showed some talent for the sport it was clear that karate just wasn’t her thing.
Batman was enthusiastic about his sister’s departure from their shared class. As I said, Annabelle had a natural talent for the sport, and in the strict ranking system that is employed in their group she was one rank ahead of her brother. Her leaving gave Batman an automatic rise in stature. He thought that was pretty cool.
I delivered the news about Annabelle’s departure to Sensei Ed (the instructor) when we got to class. He was shocked to hear that she was leaving, but agreed that karate is not for everyone. Then he looked at Batman. “You are going to have to work extra hard now to make your family proud,” he said. I don’t think either he or I knew at the moment just how literally that phrase would apply to class that very night.
The class started as normal, with the lower-ranked white belts on one end of the mats, with the higher ranked yellow and the single purple belt in a line at the other. One of the white belts was lined up with the higher ranks, performing all the moves of the kata with the more advanced students.
Once the groups had finished practicing their kata, the warm-up sparring began, with the sensei picking out two volunteers to go hand-to-hand and foot-to-foot on the mat. After just a bit of warm-up an unusual thing happened.
Sensei pulled aside the highest ranked white belt, the same young man who had been performing kata with the upper ranks before, and gave him an unusual command: he was to choose someone to fight for him. This had not occurred in our class experience to date, so all of the parents and students watched curiously. The boy seemed unsure of what was taking place too, and after glancing around a bit he turned and pointed at Zach, who as the next lower rank was standing right next to him in line.
The Sensei turned to Batman and asked “Do you agree to fight for H?” Zach nodded, having no idea at this point what was going on. “OK,” Sensei said. “Let’s get started.”
He pulled out the lowest ranked white belt and she and Zach squared off on the mat at Sensei’s command, then sparred for about a minute, with the instructor watching the clock carefully.
When he called “Stop”, Batman and the little girl bowed to each other and Zach started to sit down. “No Zach,” called Sensei. “You stay in.” Zach shrugged and returned to the middle of the mat, where he was met by the next-ranked white belt.
This routine continued on. And on. After about the first three rounds we all got our first clue about what was going on. The young man who had selected Zach as his stand-in was not sparring, but sitting watching the action intently. When his attention wandered for a moment the Sensei immediately stopped the fight and squatted next to the young man. “You watch what is going on out there. Zach is out there fighting for YOU!”
The boy’s mother was sitting a couple of chairs away from me and she rose and walked to where I sat. “I think that Zach is doing the sparring for H’s yellow belt test for him!” she said. Ah, that made sense. She had told me the previous week that H had been hit hard in a sparring match and his ear-drum had been perforated. He wasn’t allowed to spar until it was fully healed. Apparently Sensei had decided to go ahead with H’s test, using a stand-in to exhibit the sparring skill.
It seems to be the norm that a student does not know exactly when their belt rank test will be administered. Although we’ve been in karate for only a few months we have seen two or three yellow belts awarded, and the student never seems to realize he or she is being tested until the sparring begins and they begin fighting up through the ranks.
When a student is tested for the higher ranking belt they are required to spar with every student in class that night, from the lowest to highest ranking, fighting continuously with only a couple of quick breaks for water. It is a true test of the candidate’s stamina and strength, not to mention commitment to the practice. It can be almost brutal to watch but it is a required rite of passage for the discipline.
Batman knew that he was not yet being considered for a yellow belt, so I was sure he had no idea why he was sparring with every student. Nonetheless, he fought courageously through all the white belts. Then he started on the yellow belts.
Some of the higher ranked kids were not only much more experienced than my seven-year old, they were also years older and a lot bigger. Batman was not intimidated at all. He even got some great hits in on the bigger kids.
After a candidate fights his way up through all the individual ranks, he must take on two competitors at once. Before this round started, Sensei approached H and asked if he still wanted Zach to fight for him. He said yes, so Sensei asked Zach if he was willing to continue fighting. My son nodded solemnly.
Batman still had not figured out what was going on, but he fought gallantly against the two higher-ranked yellow belts.
And then against two lower ranks.
Next was the hardest test of all. After fighting about a dozen rounds already, the candidate must do two rounds where they spar against three classmates at one time. For this fight they get to choose their competitors, who are lined up in rank order on the floor. Usually the student chooses others who are right around the same ranking as themselves for this portion of the test.
Batman stood for several seconds surveying his choices.
When he made his choice, the other parents and I shook our heads in disbelief. He called his competitors quickly, from left to right, starting with the highest ranked student in attendance that night, a purple belt who outranked him by a few years and many belt colors, and then the two highest-ranked yellow belts.
Sensei Ed gave a sharp laugh of incredulity. “Are you sure you want to pick those three?!” Batman nodded solemnly. He had no idea why he was fighting, but he was going to make the most of it.
Before the match started Ed admonished the higher ranks to be judicious in their attack, and reminded them that Zach was but a lone white belt.
It didn’t look like they pulled many punches to me. Batman held his own, and once again got in a few good points on them. Sensei kept yelling “Good! Good job Zach!”
After that fight Batman had one match left. This time he chose two white belts and one yellow belt.
He told me later he was getting a little tired by then.
When the last match was over, Ed lined the students up according to rank, with the young H standing in front with him. Then he did something we’d never seen before. He asked Zach to come up and sit beside H. After that he performed the ritual of awarding the classes’ newest yellow belt, with Zach sitting right beside him the entire time.
Then Ed asked Zach to stand before his classmate, and instructed H to shake Zach’s hand and tell him thank you. He then explained to the class and bystanders what some of us had already guessed: since H was qualified to test for the next rank but was unable to fight, Sensei exercised a very rarely used provision that allowed the candidate to choose a stand-in for the sparring portion of the test.
Finally Zach realized what he had been doing.
The group got a break for some water, and Batman bounded over to me. His head glistened with sweat and he looked exhausted. But he was happy.
When class resumed a minute or two later there was time enough for a little more sparring. Sensei Ed asked for volunteers. I don’t know if he or I was more astounded when Batman waved his hand wildly in the air.
“Are you sure you want to go out there again Zach? Aren’t you tired?” he laughed.
“Nope!” Batman asserted, so out he went.
When class was over Sensei pulled Zach aside and talked to him privately for several minutes. The only portion of the conversation I could hear was the teacher thanking him for fighting so hard for his classmate, and telling him what a great job he had done.
Finally Zach joined me and he was all smiles as we walked out into the chilly darkness. “What did Sensei say?” I asked him.
“He said he thought I was almost ready to be tested for my yellow belt!” Batman beamed. His hard work had obviously impressed his teacher.
I told him how proud I was of him, but I don’t think he really comprehended the absolute pleasure that I took in his performance.
It’s something only a parent can understand.