The Littlest Black Belt Crosses the Starting Line

After seven and a half years of practice, two months of really hard work, a couple weeks of rather gruesome stress, and fifteen minutes of actual kata . . . .

. . . I am a black belt in shima-ha shorin-ryu karate.

In a way, the test is more ceremonial than anything else. Shihan’s been watching you the whole time; he cares more about your general level of skill than how you perform in a single, specific moment. I screwed up the footing at one point on jitte — knew it even as my feet were moving into place. But I still passed. Because I don’t always screw up the footing on jitte, and even if those weren’t my best performances of each kata — my performance in a test is never my best; nerves get in the way too much — I showed that I know what I’m doing, well enough to qualify, at least.

My sister-in-law, who is a sensei at the dojo, said something very useful to me about two weeks ago: as much as we want to feel like we’ve earned our black belts with the test, her take is that you earn your belt after the test. The test itself is a formality, a thing to get out of the way so you can go back to working on your karate and growing into the belt you now wear. Her words of wisdom did a lot to help me stop stressing (well, stress less). And now, with the test over, I know exactly what she means. Shihan gave me some esoteric tips on movement; now in class, rather than running all my kata back-to-back in order to build my endurance and learn how to pace myself, I can stand there wiggling my shoulders and sticking my knuckles into my ribs and doing things that won’t have an immediate effect on my kata, but will make me a better karateka in the long run.

Because the thing to remember is: as much as outsiders think of getting your black belt as “graduation,” as having arrived . . . it’s really the starting line. All those belts below black are more recent inventions, a way to let you see the progress you’re making on your way to, not mastery, but basic competence. I have now achieved basic competence. Yay! Time to really get to work.

. . . no really, time to get to work. Because my test wound up being scheduled for a Wednesday afternoon, I have class tonight. I’m looking forward to sticking my knuckles into my ribs and seeing what happens. 😀

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