you didn’t know what you were looking for until you heard the voices in your ear

My school promotes students to black belt about once every ten months on average. We never do more than two or three at a time.

At the last one, in March, I promoted to black belt, along with two other students. We were the last three students to join the program while it was still at Boston College – the end of an era. I remember a lot of weekend practices and nights at the dojo until 10:00 or later. I remember waking myself up at night worrying, and then calming myself back down again the following morning. Other than that I don’t remember much, which is why I’m grateful for the photos.

This past Saturday, I stood in the back, along with the twenty-odd other black belts still active in Sensei Nick’s program. Two students knelt in the front – Rudy, the first student to join the program at its current home in Watertown; and Andy, who had started training 15 years ago but taken time off to recover from injuries. I didn’t really feel “senior” to them; the distinction between them, as students, and myself as a sensei seemed artificial. It’d become irrelevant in two hours anyway.

Black belt tests differ for every student. They’re intensely personal and revealing challenges: imagine fighting a horde of ninjas to get to the church on your wedding day. So I can’t really tell you what the test meant for Rudy and Andy. But I can say what the belt itself means, because it’s a point I’ve heard Nick re-iterate at least ten times since I’ve started training.

Getting a black belt (in our style) isn’t a destination. It’s a point on a greater journey. It’s the undergraduate degree. Black belt doesn’t mean you’ve learned everything: it means you’ve learned how to learn. Now you’re ready to start seriously training as a martial artist – if you want to.

Of course, that’s what the black belt signifies to the school. What it signifies to the student is something else. Nick requires each student to write a paper the week before their test, explaining what getting a black belt means to them. I’ve read Rudy’s and Andy’s, and the other black belts have read the one I wrote.

I’ll let you read mine too, if you like. Just promote to black belt at our school and I’ll e-mail you a copy.

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