Sunday, February 26, 2012

Yellow belt

I am a proud mama this weekend. Yesterday was Sam's advancement test in karate from white to yellow belt. He's been salivating over this moment for months, although we had our ups and downs getting here.

Sam begged us to take karate. We finally relented in September and said we'd give it a try, and he was so excited. His dojo is structured so that each child gets an individual or small-group lesson once a week, and can come to as many classes as they'd like in addition. Every Thursday after school Sam would change into his gi and off we would go to his lesson, and every Saturday Mark would take him to his big group lesson.

We ran into trouble about 4 weeks in, when the newness started to wear off and his white belt, which would eventually hold 3 black stripes signifying advancement, remained bare.

"I don't want to go to karate today! I want to quit!" came the whine from underneath a pile of pillows on the couch. "Karate is boring!"

"I understand you don't want to go and you want to quit," I said. "But we made a promise to Sensei that we would be there this afternoon, so we have to go today. We can talk about this more when we get home if you'd like."

His attitude would always have improved after class, but we still had a rough few weeks. One time, I actually had to carry him in to the dojo while he clung to my neck. We were both obviously pretty frustrated with each other. His Sensei saw and came over, with an expression that said he knew exactly what was going on.

"Let me talk to Sam," he said.

I left the waiting room and wandered outside with Caroline, knowing I wouldn't be helping if I was standing there. I watched through the glass as Sensei got down on Sam's level and talked to him and I saw Sam nod a few times, then smile and follow him into the open gym area for class. Afterward, Sensai came and talked to me, told me that it was normal for kids to go through phases like that, and that it was important to just keep coming back.

Things got better from there, but we still had some ups and downs. Sam was sent to sit in a corner a few times during class when he was disruptive or not listening, but Sensai always took the time to talk to Sam afterward about how studying karate takes focus and he knew he could do it. He told me privately that Sam's penchant for falling down on purpose or blowing random raspberries was something he remembered doing as a kid when he felt like his energy was all cooped up, and he knew what he was going through. I observed many times when Sensei would give Sam positive reinforcement in front of the group, such as praising him for his tenacity or focus during a particular exercise, or noting how hard he was working at something. I saw Sam's attitude towards karate change as he gained the stripes on his belt, and eventually the invitation to the yellow belt test.

We weren't allowed to attend the test itself, but Mark was able to come at the very end and observe the way the kids were given their belts. As the parents entered, all the kids sat quietly meditating, kneeling on the ground with their eyes closed while their parents snapped pictures. The three senseis at the dojo walked around and quietly placed each child's new belt and certificate in front of them, telling them that when they opened their eyes they would find out if they passed.

When Sam finally opened his eyes, Mark said that his face told it all - shock, joy, surprise, pride all mixed together. You can see it written all over him in the picture Mark took of him holding his certificate and belt with the senseis. Afterward, Sam told Mark that part of the test was that they were each asked what they learned from their studies so far. Sam's answer was that earning a yellow belt takes a lot of focus.

So yeah, I'm pretty proud. And, as I told Sam, not just of the accomplishment but of the fact that he worked so hard, stuck with it when it wasn't as fun, and kept coming back. I'm also really heartened to see the relationship between Sam and his sensei, especially as we get ready to send him off to kindergarten and years of adult authority figures who are not us.

But most importantly, I see that Sam is proud of himself. He was able to articulate at the test what his particular challenge was, and voice that he overcame it. I see that he is proud not just of the belt, but in all of the work that went into earning it.

And I also reflect on what Mark and I do to show and reinforce those values. That we value working hard over trophies. That when everything seems overwhelming, sometimes just showing up when you promised to is enough for now and the rest will come later.

I know we'll have lots of ups and downs in our future, over karate and over other things. He'll want to quit, he'll get frustrated and sad when he doesn't make progress, doesn't win, or feels like all the work is in vain. But I hope we can help him understand all these things, put them in perspective and remind him that working hard for something takes time, and is ultimately its own reward.

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