My youngest, Olivia (Liv), took up Taekwon-do a few months ago. The classes take place twice a week in a boxing club in Gort, a small town some twenty minutes’ drive away. There is nothing to do at nighttime in winter in this town except go to the one hotel and have a coffee. You can’t even have a drink because of driving. But none of this matters because Liv is getting along famously with her lessons.
Yesterday was the first day of grading for Liv. She was to be tested to see whether she would move up a grade and be worthy of the yellow-white belt, the next colour up from white. Liv had put the work in, practicing her Korean words and names for moves. We thought up mnemonics in the car to try and remember them, and by the time she got to the testing centre she felt prepared.
The grading started. I hadn’t yet seen her or any other kids in action (frankly, I was banished from watching Liv practice). A row of examiners sat at a table at the top of the room. I recognised Miss Connolly, Liv’s beautiful teacher. To her right sat a fit-looking man whom I learned was Master Fitzgibbon, a teacher in the City club. The kids formed two rows of about ten kids each on the mat in front of the table of examiners. Master Fitzgibbon spoke.
“What are the tenets of Taekwon-do?” he called. “Courtesy! Integrity! Perseverance! Self-control! Indomitable spirit!”
I was suddenly all ears. These are codes for living I can get behind. As the grading went on, I sketched, and I found the children in their robes, doing their moves with such grace and confidence, very beautiful. Any question put to a child was to be answered with the word “Miss” or “Sir” at the end. This is unusual in Irish society where we are famously informal.
The kids kicked, turned, swirled and throughout it all, yelled.
“I want your shout to go through me!” called Master Fitzgibbon. Every move was punctuated with a hiss or a shout.
He got the kids to do push-ups, and asked them why they were important. They offered some creative answers: “because it’s hard” was my favourite. Master Fitzgibbon told them that it’s because the body must be in tip-top condition, as strong as it’s possible to be. He demonstrated with a few push-ups, then bounced along the mat on his fists and toes.
(I always think it’s important for the teacher to do something really impressive, as it’s inspiring to the kids. My art teacher’s flashy moves with drawing and painting left me in awe as a kid. Master Fitzgibbon’s push-ups had the same effect.)
The kids were corrected and graded in front of everyone. This is good for humility, but each correction was directed at the entire class.
To a young boy:
“You made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes. Let yourself off. If you don’t, you will become emotional and you will make more mistakes.”
To my girl:
“You were right first time, but you doubted yourself and copied your neighbour, who was wrong. Trust yourself. If you make a mistake, let it be your mistake.”
Kids were marked down for forgetting their “sir” and “miss” at the end of an answer, even once. I like these kind of exacting standards: kids will rise to the challenge.
I was very taken with the whole thing. When we got home I told Liv I might be interested in joining a Taekwon-do class. She was most unhappy and implored me not to take up “her” sport. What nonsense. On the other hand, I did see some kids sparring…I am not interested in hurting my drawing hand so she just might be in luck.
I teach kids over the next couple of days: I rather think I can introduce at least a few of those five tenets to the children…and apply all of them to my own life.
By the way – I still have TWO places left in my watercolour workshop in the Algarve, Portugal, 28th April – 4th May and FOUR places left in my watercolour workshop in Haarlem, Netherlands, 19th-21st July.