“Mom, I want to quit karate.”
With those few words, Ryan, my thirteen-year-old son, declared war.
For two solid years, four times a week, I had willingly driven thirty miles to the nearest karate dojo. In that short amount of time, Ryan exhibited a natural ability that quickly moved him up the ranks. He had earned the first black stripe on his Brown Belt. Only two more tests until he would have his Black Belt. And now, he wanted to quit.
The lessons had been Ryan’s idea, not mine. To me, karate implied violence. To Ryan, they represented power.
“Mom, I’m a wimp. I’m tired of all the bullies picking on me. I need to learn how to defend myself.”
I resisted. My excuses ranged from, “I don’t want you to get hurt. You’ll never practice.” And that parental favorite, “We can’t afford it.”
I didn’t give in until the day he came home with a bloody nose because of a bully who made him kiss the pavement, nose first.
Karate lessons began the very next day.
From the beginning, I sensed something special about the school. His Sensi, (teacher) did more than just teach the kids how to defend themselves against an enemy. He taught survival skills for life.
“Keep your eyes open,” Sensi told them. “Be aware of what’s going on around you. Set goals. Learn the skills needed to meet your goals.”
Once Sensi asked a class of thirty-five kids, “How many of you consider yourselves average?” To his dismay, almost every hand went up.
“Put your hands down,” he yelled. “Never, ever admit that you are average. You have within you the ability to be anything you want, as long as you’re willing to work at it.”
Even sitting on the sidelines, his words touched me, infusing me with a hidden strength. He made me feel like I could do anything. And as adamantly as I’d been against karate in the first place, I suddenly became its biggest advocate.
Ryan never missed a class or a test. With the rest of the students, he performed monthly demonstrations in parades, shopping malls and fairs. When special seminars came around, I always made sure he attended. I bought him books and videos, then quizzed him on the material. In my mind, the more opportunities he took advantage of, the quicker he would advance to that all-important Black Belt.
But along the way, I forgot to ask Ryan what he wanted. So I felt shocked and disappointed when he told me earning a Black Belt no longer mattered to him.
“I’m going to quit,” he said. “It’s no fun anymore. Baseball season starts soon and I’d rather practice baseball than karate.”
“But you’re so close to becoming a Black Belt,” I insisted. “Why give up before you reach your goal? Haven’t you listened to anything Sensi has tried to teach you?”
“Yes, Mom, I have. Sensi said anything is possible if you’re not afraid of hard work. I want to play in the Major Leagues someday. That means I have to devote my time to improving my baseball skills. I’d like to try out for the High School team, and maybe play winter ball, but I need to practice hard if I hope to make the cuts.”
“Couldn’t you stay with karate for just one more year,” I begged, still clinging to the vision of his Black Belt.
Ryan stood his ground and shook his head. “I learned what I wanted to from karate. I know how to defend myself, even against people bigger than me. I’m not afraid of bullies or a gang with knife, because I know what to do and how to get away.”
His only other comment was, “If getting a Black Belt is so important to you, Mom, maybe you’re the one who should be taking karate instead of me.”
His words shocked me, much like a bucket of cold water jolts your system awake. That’s when I stepped back and took a good look at my son. There had been no whining. He hadn’t raised his voice or lost his temper. He had come to a decision based on the goals he had set for himself. Then he presented the facts to me in a calm and grown-up manner.
No longer my little baby, but not quite a young man, Ryan had taken the first step toward adulthood by taking control of his own life. Which, I think, was exactly what Sensi wanted to teach him all along.