I saw “Karate Kid” when it first came out in movie theaters. Since that evening in 1984 I've encountered countless children dressed in tiny white pajamas, and yet the experience of a class filled with little Ralph Macchios seemed entirely foreign to me.
There my son was draped in a suit of white muslin, one trouser cuff folded up, the other catching under his heel as he sidestepped across a room-sized mat. The white sash that held his tunic closed could have wrapped around his waist three times. Twice was traditional, and he had no intention of breaking with tradition.
The boy who stepped onto that mat, fist pressed against palm and bending into a deep bow, looked exactly like the kid who bounced into my car, charged over the seats with his muddy sneakers and had to be cajoled into sitting quietly and snapping his own seatbelt into place.
He looked exactly like the kid who threw his glove up in the air as he waited for the baseball to make its way into his section of the outfield. The boy who routinely sat criss-cross-applesauce during every other play. Coach can holler “baseball ready” all he wants, the term floats into the air and drifts away meaningless as he dances and stretches and plucks up grass by the blade. “I love baseball,” he insists. “I play great on the Wii.”
But this kid was different. Focused and alert. Watching every one's move and keeping in step. This was another sport entirely. And somehow he seemed to understand the language.
“Hey, buddy,” I yelled to get his attention. “Your sash is dragging on the floor. Let me help you retie it.”
Even my son recognized I seemed lost and in need of a translator.
“It's not a sash, mom. It's a belt. And I know how to tie it.”
Since he started taking a martial arts class I stand corrected. A lot.
The teacher isn't a master or a sensei, he's just “sir.”
It's not just a uniform or a gi, it's a dobok.
It's also not karate … or kung fu or Aikido … it's tae kwon do.
It comes from Korea, not Japan or China.
He riddles me with fact after fact, which I try to sort out with help from a careful comparison of dozens of Wikipedia entries. The variations, however, are lost on me.
What isn't lost on me is the stick-straight body of my normally fidgety son, in rapt silence, as he listens to the instructions of his new mentor.
As I watch from my place on the folding chairs, I am sure I couldn't duplicate the dance. Each step has a name I can't even pronounce.
It's all about the form. He moves through some basic stances. Foot plant. Foot plant. Swivel. Punch. Punch. Punch.
My son moves through this script fluidly and with confidence, needing only small corrections here and there. Leveling of shoulders, aligning of arms, position of feet. He finds the alignment on his own through repetition.
For an hour, twice a week, he seems like a different child. Focused and engaged. A little of this new stance even stays on him for a while after his dobok is in the laundry and he is swimming around in the tub.
He bows deeply, saying, “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” gently and unprompted.
Meditation in movement.
His teacher asks questions:
“Win or lose, does it matter?”
He and his classmates chime in unison:
“What matters is that you do your absolute best. It might not be 100 percent every day, but it's your best for that moment.”
And in that moment, it didn't seem foreign in the least.