These past 14 months that I’ve been a karate student have given me a number of deeply satisfying moments, including the joy of sharing an activity with my daughter. Last Tuesday, however, proved to be an especially fruitful class for both of us.
Starting in September, the YMCA agreed to try out dropping class fees for YMCA members, and as you might imagine, we immediately saw a small but steady wave of new sign-ups for class. As a result, for the first time in a while, we have a good number of new students – white belts. As a result, we spend a large chunk of class time going back over many of the basic techniques in more detail than we’ve gotten used to. Those of us who are higher belts get to work with the white belts one-on-one during many of these exercises. This proves beneficial to everyone – they get a personal workout, and we get a mirror to more clearly see how well we’ve mastered the basics (or not, as it usually happens).
The first blessing was working with a gentleman who has been in class somewhere around a month. He and I were working through one-step exercises: one person performs a basic punch attack while the other defends, then we switch roles. We do this with seven defenses. As you work through the ranks, the defense techniques get more complicated, but for white belt one-steps, it’s pretty simple. Or so it seems now after a year; they were quite challenging when I first started and I got to re-experience that working with this gentleman. During our practice, he had one of those epiphany moments and what had been a struggle suddenly turned into AHA! with a clarity we both felt. It was an honor to be working with him in that moment.
The second blessing came about indirectly because of some misbehavior. You see, our protocol and customs direct us to pay attention and not engage in side conversations or monkey business when sensei is teaching. (Turns out there are no exceptions for “if you think you already know this” or “if you’re bored.” I checked. Who knew?) Well, several of us – including me and Treanna – weren’t quite paying attention to that one, and the senior student got called on it. I later told Treanna that he’d taken one for the team; we all were equally guilty of inattention. As class was drawing to an end, though, Treanna engaged in another breach of protocol that earned her some gentle ribbing. (She might read this, so I won’t tell you what she did. This time.)
Being a vigilant father and role model, I immediately realized we had what the experts call “a teachable moment” here. So we cracked open our karate notebooks and made a date to come back tonight after dinner, both having read the protocols, and discuss what we’d found:
- There are three basic sets of protocol in our notebook: white belt (people who’ve just joined), blue belt (9th kyu, or your first belt), and orange belt (7th kyu, or your third belt). After reading them, we decided that they all have the common themes of respect, safety, and responsibility.
- We think that white belt protocol focuses mainly on the what habits I need to become a student (discipline). That is, all of the guidance seems to be directed more at helping the newcomer gain the structures he will need to effectively learn karate.
- We think that blue belt protocol focuses mainly on how I become a member of the community (identity). This comes after the first belt (typically earned after several months) and the guidance is more focused on becoming aware of and fitting into the dojo structure.
- Finally, we think that orange belt protocol focuses mainly on how I give back to the community (service). This comes after three belts and around a year of study – a good foundation from which to be able to start learning to progress by helping others.
- As a final note, we saw that there was no specific protocol for further belts. We speculate that’s because the student in green and brown belts is expected to do the same things she is already doing, just to a greater degree. And once she gets to black belt – that’s a watershed mark, and sensei will teach us what is expected of us on that day at the proper time.
If you’re not in a martial art, that’s probably boring and generic. To Treanna and I, though, it seemed pretty profound, and I think we’ll walk back into class tomorrow with a new-found sense of focus and commitment.