My daughter and Lisa’s kids all take Tae Kwon Do, the martial arts practice of Korea. They are all just months away from earning their black belts, and I want to share one story from their long journey today.
Part of their testing for rank promotion (the belt tests) is board-breaking. Actually breaking the board isn’t required, but trying is. Among the lower ranks, the first class in which they try board-breaking is scary or exciting, according to temperament. It is definitely possible to get hurt doing this; what is required is careful preparation and then decisive action. My daughter was extremely apprehensive the first time. The prospect of striking the wood clearly had her rattled, and she kept darting nervous glances my way where I sat in the parents’ section. As I recall, Lisa’s son was the first to raise his hand to give it a try. He took his fighting stance in front of the instructor who was holding the board, and then slammed it with a hammer fist. Crrrack! We all broke into spontaneous applause as the two halves went flying. Before long, Lisa’s daughter was waving her hand in the air to take her turn, but K. was shrinking visibly. As an athletic performance with an audience, this was a task that required both physical courage and social courage.
At last she could hang back no longer. Her turn inevitably came. She had been in this country for less than a year since her adoption from Ethiopia. She was still as thin as a stick and her white uniform billowed around her small frame. Her teacher talked her through the steps; she looked my way; he encouraged her more, and coached her through a few warm-up swings. She then drew a deep breath and smashed the board in two with her little hand. “I did it!” she cried in amazement. “I did it!”
She sang the whole way home.
As they advance through the ranks, their breaking techniques are required to get more challenging, more complicated. Sometimes at a belt test K. tries and fails to break. Recently, a mom broke her arm at her own black belt test, a sober reminder of how dangerous incorrect technique can be. At K.’s most recent test she was again the last person to break, still hanging back until the end. But her two breaks were quick and decisive: first an upward knee-smash followed by a quick pivot to the second board and a palm-heel strike.
Recognizing when it’s time to be the hero, and doing it even when you’re scared: that’s courage.