The Great Testing (or Why Martial Arts is Harder than Grad School)

(Note, this is not about Joelle Charbonneau’s terrific YA book The Testing, but it’s good, so if you’re into Hunger Games and Divergent and The Giver and that general idea of kids in a world turned dangerous by the downfall of our current social-media-based society, you should go read it.)


Tomorrow is the first black belt test at my dojo. As one of the earlier students, (I might be the longest-running adult student by a month or two), I’m proud of the school and my Sensei and the other candidates, all of whom reached brown belt before I did, even if just by a few weeks. It’s been almost two and a half years. I’m a slow learner when it comes to this sort of thing, physical things. The guy who showed up a few months after me got to brown belt several months ahead of me. It’s not a race, but he definitely has not only an inherent talent and athleticism I envy, but he lacks a lot of the other life obligations that kept me from practicing as much as he did, too. (I don’t so much envy that. It sounds kind of lonely and I’m glad he has his dojo family for support.)

I’ve never been much for announcing my future tests and hurdles. Not the real ones anyway. I don’t think I told anyone but the husband about the big essay test I had to take in lieu of the thesis (that fell apart due to a lack of quality data) to get my master’s degree. Not until after it was done, I’d passed, and it was over. And the master’s degree was honestly easier, to me, than getting to brown belt — never mind whatever happens tomorrow. (I’m sure my athletic dojo buddy would disagree since reading a stack of criminology theory books, a bazillion articles about restorative justice and the school-to-prison pipeline, social justice, and advanced statistics for the social sciences doesn’t really seem like his thing.)

But that’s the thing. There’s this theory that women who grew up being praised for high achievement that comes from “talent” (as opposed to trying hard or practicing) tend to shy away from things that are challenging, things they might get less-than-perfect scores in. This is held up an excuse or explanation (frankly, I prefer explanation over excuse because I find “excuse” fraught with judgement, but I’m nuts, so…) as to why so many young women opt out of STEM classes and majors. I don’t know how much truth is in that theory. It’s a theory of human behavior, which is held to less rigorous standards than theories in the “hard sciences.” Theories of human behavior are based on aggregated data, but acknowledge exceptions at both ends of their own bell curves, along with the myriad of possibilities they couldn’t or didn’t test. Scientific theories are essentially truths as we know them, tested and retested until the majority of scientists believe it, baring some undiscovered thing that negates the theory.

Certainly, I was one of those little girls who was praised for the things I did well, that I had a natural aptitude for, that I got straight As in. And as a lazy little human, I tended to drift toward the things I was good at. I liked gymnastics until I got tossed out for being too tall being the only one they had to adjust all the equipment for. Being too tall would have held me back from progressing too far, so there’s that. No amount of practice would make me shorter. A lot more practice might have made me a better dancer when my parents signed me up for that. Instead, I felt like a dog on the first day of obedience training. People wanted me to do things, but I couldn’t figure out what. There was yelling and hand gestures and miming and none of it made any sense. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be a dancer. (Most of them are short, too; makes them easier to toss around.) I kind of wanted to do karate, but little girls back then didn’t do that and, to be fair, I’d have probably quit that, too, at the time because I lacked coordination for almost anything but hanging upside down like a bat and dropping.

I did take a lot of science classes in high school, possibly because by then my form of teen rebellion involved sleeping through classes — hard and easy — so I had a reason my grades were average (or slightly above, but usually by accident). If you’re pushing back against the perfectionism of your AP class peers (even if you’re not totally aware that’s what you’re doing), you’re not likely to give a shit if your science and math grades aren’t all 100s. By not attempting perfection, and by mostly sleeping, though, I silenced myself as effectively as the other students did by deciding I was unpopular. I could actually go whole days at school without saying anything, unless I muttered to myself.

Women often find themselves in spaces were they are silenced, either overtly or subversively. And, even if one doesn’t “buy in” consciously, it becomes a learned behavior. In companies, offices, and other workplaces, there’s often a hierarchy of women who are allowed to speak or speak out and there are numerous unwritten rules about what they’re allowed to say and when. Maybe because I slept through that period of school when you’re supposed to learn all these social cues or maybe because I didn’t have enough friends to teach me or maybe because I was rebelling against my mother’s perceived silence, I had a bad habit of breaking all those little taboos. I’d point out illogical strategies and offer suggestions and ask too many questions. And I’d inevitably be deemed least-likely-to-advance-beyond-smallest-cubicle.

Education, further taught me that no one wants my opinions, thoughts, research, or ideas. No one wants facts or data that isn’t supplied by testing companies and the DOE. No one wants creative thinking even if they ask for it constantly. They want all “out-of-the-box” thinking done in a smaller box next to the big one. Even my friends over the years, have implored me to “just shut up,” “don’t say anything,” “be quiet and pretend they’re right,” and “just play along.” And I still suck at it, but the more I tried to be silent, the worse I felt about myself.

What the hell does all that have to do with martial arts?

Well, I took up “karate” at the ripe old age of 35. Most of the women my age who show up there are dropping or or picking up their kids. (Karate’s in quotes because the particular style I ended up finding and liking isn’t just “karate” but that seems to be American shorthand for “martial arts.”) It was something I’d wanted to do and I found a school and a style that I liked. (It’s a blend of Kempo Karate and Gung Fu, so it merges the hard and the soft and it shares lineage with Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do.) I found people who, so far, accept my eccentricities. And my questions get answers. (Still trying to find the will to scream and shout things when punching and kicking. Seems all those years of attempted silence mostly affected the little kid in me who thought screaming was the MOST FUNNEST THING EVER!)

I have some doubts about my ability to do this. (Apparently my “bitchy resting face” isn’t aggressive enough, so I need to work on a “angry beaver face” or something before tomorrow.) I’m the oldest of the candidates by five years. And he’s ten years older than the next oldest. Of the three adults, I’m the lightest. Good for being thrown. Harder to do the throwing. I have to be twice as fast and twice as flexible to overcome the lack of bulk-derived power. Reminding myself to yell when executing moves means I have fewer brain cells left to remember the damn move.

And I’ve developed some sort of performance anxiety that’s related to the public, physical aspects of it. Write thirty pages of essays on criminology in the comfort of your home office? Sure. Stand in front of a group of people and perform complicated hand gestures. AGH! *freezes, cries, scratches arm off* I’ve always hated public speaking. High school drama class, college public speaking class, and eight years of teaching didn’t do anything to assuage that. Weird, but true. Plus, that old pre-school perfectionism has reared its ugly little head. I find if I can’t remember the precise sequence of things, I tend to freeze and do nothing–on tests or when being watched. When practicing, I have no problem with just doing some random thing that seems to work and then acknowledging that I fucked it up.

So, tomorrow:

  • Make angry face
  • Yell
  • DO Something even if it’s wrong
  • Try to do the not wrong thing
  • Breathe

I’m pretty sure there will be crying. Either way the test goes, I’m pretty sure there will be crying. (It’s the easiest way to put a release valve on all this anxiety, plus I might be a little PMSy if my math is right.) There you go. That’s my “scary face.” Weakness, please. Nothing scarier than a screaming, crying, angry woman with ninja weapons.

Also, if the idea of “ninja weapons” excites you, you should read this while I freak out. And I think if I’m still a brown belt on Sunday, I might actually be more okay with it than my Sensei, who seems to think I’m prepared enough to put me in front of the 10th degree Shodai. No pressure. Right?

Epilogue: I passed and I’ve never done anything harder. 

2 thoughts on “The Great Testing (or Why Martial Arts is Harder than Grad School)

Comments are closed.