He usually leaves this place a hot mess, my whirling dervish of a boy.
His face is reddened by exertion. His hair plastered upward into a look made possible by the automatic motion of preening and the natural pomade of perspiration. His white uniform and blue belt are almost as disheveled. But he is happy.
This is martial arts.
Twice a week, for four years, we've come to his humid gym so he might kick and punch his way toward a rainbow of belts.
As he moves through the “forms,” as they are known, he breaths out an audible current of air. There is a calm fluidity to the sequence that allows a moment of tranquility before it is ultimately broken with an ear-splitting yell called a K'ihap.
A K'ihap sounds nothing like Hiayah!
Lately, though, he's not been happy.
Transitions from school to home and from home to lessons haven't been as fluid. I brushed it off as a normal phase.
Sparring, a key ingredient of this particular discipline has packed too much spice for his taste. Also a common complaint.
The kicks have come at him harder, the punches more forceful. He wears his mad face more and more before and after class.
He never wants to talk about it.
Until one days he doesn't stop talking:
"This isn't fun anymore," he says one day after class. "I don't like getting hit."
Of course, I don't fully understand. My offer to skip those particular lessons is met with incredulity.
It's part of a process I hadn't fully processed during all those years I had perched on a folding chair, watching my phone, on the sidelines.
He knows without sparring he won't progress, and if you don't progress you just stagnate.
My mind runs through the Parent Ponders checklist:
Is he angling for more screen time?
Will he regret coming all this way and giving up?
Do quitters never win?
I make him speak with his teacher.
It is the difficult thing to do. And something I think is necessary.
And all goes well until he cries and agrees to keep trying.
"Give it one more month," we all agree.
At least, that's what I THINK we've decided to do as my red-eyed, puffy-nosed boy sat quietly in the back of the car.
Until the following week.
When he just broke out in tears when I handed him his uniform and gave my usual 10-minute warning.
"I just want to be done. I don't want to do martial arts anymore. ... I want to do other things: I want to go to the playground after school. I want to play flag football. I want to learn to play the trumpet next year in school. I don't want to be a punching bag."
I wonder if tag-teaming with his teacher was the best thing?
He agreed to continue only because he was the smallest person in the room, and everyone knows the smallest people don't usually win in a fight.
Fighting our own battles, we tend to agree, builds character.
And what about commitment?
Does following through to the end mean committing to unhappiness?
If it does, it seems to me, that in itself unhappiness is a means to an ending of another sort.
And so, I agree. It's time to try something new.