When MG started Taekwondo he was four and we called him Gracie. We were learning to spell words back then and there was a song I used to sing: “G-R-A-C-I-E. That. Spells. Gracie!” I’m not much of a singer but somehow that simple tune became the scaffold for a certain period of his childhood. Memories are attached to it – bath time, Bat Man, Diego, wrestling. And the introduction of baby sister Lulu who would become a fourth planet in our family solar system…another place my heart would live.
Denton Taekwondo Academy is in a strip mall on Ave. C and Eagle. It has glass windows and a glass door that face south into the squelching heat of a potholed parking lot. We’ve been there, I would guess, over 200 times in the past four years. Twice a week for forty-five minute training sessions. Nearly half his life with some breaks here and there.
The place is not much to look at: the ceiling is stained, the blinds are dusty, the carpet is worn and ragged. But what happens inside is magical. Young kids – slowly and by degrees, imperceptibly in the same way the sun crawls from east to west – are transformed from bundles of inarticulate movements into artists who wield their bodies like brushes across the canvass of spacetime. Loose, jumbly limbs and jittery goofballs become crisp, pointed knives slicing the air with hand and foot. The place is a forge – a smithy of young souls.
The instructors, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, exercise the most beautiful, difficult kind of love. Day by day tending to the children – adjusting knees and elbows as well as attitudes and perspectives. Straightening the crooked timbers as only foresters can do – with patience and a keen eye for the subtle emergence of new growth on green and pliable limbs.
The air conditioner is really only strong enough to cool the area where the kids work out behind a window cut through a wall. The parents sit closer to the front door where the mad sun cooks their backs as they work on computers or dither on their phones. They may glance up just in time to see their child do their 5,000th repetition of a punch. This time better, but not better in a way that can be noticed just yet.
For her whole life, Lulu has laid down, then sat, then crawled, then walked, then jumped around the flat grey carpet behind the chairs by the front door. She’s had every toy from their little toy basket in her mouth. She’s colored on all the books. And Amber and I have sat on the carpet sometimes watching, sometimes swinging her around, sometimes stealing glances at our own phones. While from the other side of the room, from behind the wall with the Korean flag that everyone must bow to in a sign of respect, we would hear the cries “Ha-ya!” “Huhh!” “Hee-ya!” “Ai-ya!” Each little voice inflected and projected differently in a guttural chorus. Knife-hand guarding block. Down block. Spin twirl kick.
You start out as a white belt and you look up up up at the impossible rainbow of colors. It’s a sequence through yellow and green and on to blue and then red and most impossible of all – black. You see what red and black belts can do with their bodies and then you look at this zany sprocket of a little kid and you think, “no way.” Legend has it that in the beginning there were not different colors of belts – students just wore the white belt and trained and sweated for so many years that eventually it yellowed and browned and became black with the very soil of self-making. The belt changes color in symmetry with your body and soul. As you move up in rank you move up not just in physical skill but also in nobility. “You are not just memorizing the steps,” Mrs. Rogers once told them as they stretched before class, “You are pushing past that point to sink into a zone where the form is so beautiful, so perfectly executed, that it becomes formless.” You push yourself until you drop out of yourself.
My favorite part of Taekwondo is watching the whole class perform a pattern in unison at the count of Mr. and Mrs. Rogers. “One!” they yell and a room full of legs drops into a back stance with arms raised up as if holding a staff to ward off the blow from an imaginary attacker. “Two!” and they spin and thrust their leg into his imaginary stomach. All the way to “Nineteen!” with a room full of “Yaaa!” as arms come rocketing out of their chambers to deal a blow to the solar plexus. At the end of every class, the students face the Korean flag at the back of the room and straighten their uniforms. Then they face the high rank and bow. Then they face the instructor and bow. Then they recite in unison the student oath: “Sir, I shall observe the tenets of Taekwondo…I shall be a champion of freedom and justice!…” Then they recite the tenets: “Sir! Courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, indomitable spirit, victory, Sir!”
It is disciplined and militaristic. It is the dance and shout of warriors. It is precisely what children need in an age of distraction and disposable, digital experiences. The mind must find its focus if it is to blossom. The body must swirl down like the helicoptered maple seeds into a hallow place in the forest floor if it is to make roots to hold up the tower of adulthood.
In the mornings, I would wake MG for school with another simple song: “Good morning little Gracie. How arrrrre you today? Gooooood morning little Gracie. I hope you’re good in every waaaaay!” He would kick at the covers on the top bunk under the blue canopy and tell me to go away. Grouchy as hell. Lulu would stir from the bunk below and hold up her arms for me to carry her to the couch. Eventually MG would roll out of bed and down the wooden steps. And I’d wonder what neurons would form today and which muscles. New filaments of actin and myosin to act as hammer and ratchet moving bones, which themselves are accumulating invisibly like coral in the ocean.
I’d think about the white belt pattern, Chunji, or Dan-Goon Hyung, the yellow belt pattern, and wonder at similitudes. Are these patterns emulated in cells and tissues? Are there neural pathways that mirror them? Do neurotransmitters do something like a spin twirl kick? Is there a Chunji-shaped vine that ropes around his muscles? As above, so below. I wonder about the twinship of self and cosmos. Bone is rock. Blood is river. Organs are the seven precious metals. Our bodies are the atlas of our experience. Here is a child in white pants with a blue belt. Here are the clouds and sky. Here is a child with a red belt. Here is the volcano. Here is a child looking up at the black belt – the black sky – the stars of our greater potential.
Everything fades. Everything rusts. But for now let it be known that this child has, with growing determination, climbed a long way up that rainbow. I wonder what he can see from up there.