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Z: “I just want you to know that two of my friends, K____ and M_____, don’t believe in Santa Claus. I’m not saying this is good or bad, I just thought you should know.”
Me: “Well the good thing about our country is that people can believe anything they want to believe as long as they don’t try to hurt other people with their beliefs or force them to believe something they don’t believe.”
Then Zoe mentioned a clarification of something on her Christmas list.
Me: “You’d better write Santa about that.”
Z: “It’s ok, he just heard me.”
Me: “Oh. OK.”
Z: “I know the Easter Bunny must be real because last year he brought me stick-on earrings and I know you would never buy those for me.”
Me: “Oh. OK.”
Z: “And I’m not sure about the Tooth Fairy because I don’t believe in fairies but I kind of think the Tooth Fairy is real. But I’m not sure.”
I explained to her what a contradiction was. I asked if the Tooth Fairy wasn’t real, who was putting the money under her pillow when she lost a tooth.
She pointed toward me.
I said, “Who? Is there someone in the kitchen who brings you money? Is the Tooth Fairy hiding in here?” She laughed.
And we left it at that.
I lost count of how many times Zoe kicked her board during Saturday’s growth ceremony at Evolve All. At the end of the day, the number doesn’t matter.
Breaking the board is the final part of the test to graduate to the next belt. In this, Zoe was graduating from the yellow solid belt to the green solid belt, which requires you to break a much thicker board than all the previous belt levels. This is a big-time board.
To be fair, most of her yellow solid classmates found it challenging to break the board. Out of a dozen young martial artists, I think only one or two got it on the first kick, and most of them required several kicks. It was tough. And really breaking these boards is tough for many levels. The young woman who became a black belt during this ceremony, who is fierce and had to break five consecutive boards with different techniques got really stuck on the third board and had to kick it at least a few dozen times before she broke it. So this is not easy. Not impossible, but not easy.
For whatever reason, Zoe just wasn’t connecting with the board with enough force to break through. She had actually broken one of these thick boards before, during a board breaking focused summer camp at Evolve All. So she knew she was capable of it. Of course at summer camp, no pressure at all. She broke it there on the first try.
Back to Saturday, Zoe was the last yellow solid of her group to go. She kicked and kicked but no break. The instructors gave her extra chances and then had to move on to the next part of the ceremony. They took her into another room to practice. She practiced. They coached her. Master Emerson asked her if she thought she could break the board. She said yes. He asked us if we thought she could break the board. We said yes.
They gave her another opportunity back in the ceremony. She kicked. No break. She bowed. They took her into the next room to practice. She practiced. They coached her. They gave her yet another opportunity to break it in the ceremony. She kicked. No break. They said after the ceremony was over she could try again.
At some point during all this Zoe was sitting with me at the edge of the mat and a mom we didn’t know came up to her and said, “You are so courageous!”
The ceremony ended and most students and families filed out. A few dozen people stuck around to watch Zoe make her final attempt. Master Emerson explained to her that this was her last chance, and he couldn’t promote her to green solid if she didn’t break the board. She said she understood. Master Emerson and Mister Christian continued to coach, encouraging her to use her heel instead of her toes, and to fall forward toward the board as she kicked. They let her try different kicking techniques to see where she could draw the most power.
Finally, somehow, she gathered her strength and power and hit it with her heel and the board broke. At last.
Zoe told me later that she was embarrassed that I jumped up and down and screamed and picked her up and spun her around. She buried her head in my neck in a way she hasn’t done in years. She said later that she was crying. Something had to happen to all that tension and adrenaline. Everyone who had stayed was cheering wildly and taking pictures. Mister Christian tied her new belt around her waist and gave her a big hug.
Throughout the whole ceremony, Zoe never once said, “I can’t do it,” or “This is too hard,” or “I give up.” She didn’t cry. She just kept trying.
I took her to lunch after the ceremony and asked how she felt and she said, “This is a great day!” She was smiling and happy and in no way discouraged. I was kind of astonished.
We went roller skating that night and I had already decided that I was in no way going to push her. She started skating last year and was still pretty tentative about it the last time she put her skates on. I figured she’d pushed herself enough all day. But we got there and after a few minutes of skating with the walker on wheels that you can rent (an ingenious invention made of PVC pipe) she asked me to take the walker several feet away so she could skate to it. Over and over she would ask me to take it farther and farther away so she could practice skating without it. By the end of the night she was challenging me to races.
At the community center where the skating takes place we ran into a friend of a friend who we didn’t know but who had also been at the growth ceremony and who congratulated Zoe on her persistence. Then yesterday Randy and Zoe and Zeke were at a playground and another mom they didn’t know who evidently had been at the growth ceremony said, “Zoe! Did you break your board?” and congratulated her when she said yes. Zoe said she didn’t like being famous.
Last night when we were cleaning up, I asked Zoe to write the date on the pieces of board she had broken, so we would remember when it was from. We have martial arts board fragments in drawers and boxes all over the house. She wrote the date and Evolve All green solid break (actually it’s the yellow solid break to become a green solid, but that’s ok). She drew a little belt with the fortune cookie knot. Underneath she wrote COURAGE!
It is hard to talk about your children’s failures, whether they are large or small. On social media you can brag about your kids, demonstrate their silliness or cuteness, and it’s definitely acceptable to discuss how they are making you crazy. But rarely do parents share when their kids mess up.
And in this era of what seems to me like excessive parenting, which I’m sure I’m guilty of it sometimes, it seems parents are reluctant to allow their kids to mess up. No one wants to see their kid fail, so it’s easy to try to swoop in and remove obstacles and provide extra support and do whatever you can to ensure your kid succeeds. Certainly as parents it’s our job to help our kids succeed as much as we can, but I realize that is not the same as not letting them fail. There is a subtle but importance distinction.
Yesterday Zoe took a test in her martial arts class to determine if she would be able to move up to the next belt level. She has been working toward this moment for about six months. She has learned upper body, core, and lower body exercises. She has mastered hand techniques, kicking techniques, and her martial arts form (a rapid sequence of kicks, punches, and blocks). And she has contemplated what virtue she could most improve upon and why.
This level of testing is the hardest she has encountered in her two years of practicing martial arts, because it is the first level of elements in the advanced class–the solid belts. She has struggled occasionally with techniques over the past two years, but this time around, the techniques have really been tough. But she is motivated and she has practiced and practiced and practiced at home, and she’s figured it out. Her instructors are kind and patient and encouraging and have provided constant support, often staying after class at her request to help her hone her techniques. That doesn’t mean that she hasn’t experienced many small failures. The steps toward getting each new belt are obtaining a stripe on your belt that indicates your mastery of a particular technique. Students typically test for their stripes when the instructor or the student thinks they are ready, but they sometimes fail. Maybe even often. Maybe other students seldom fail, but Zoe doesn’t usually get her stripe on the first try. Sometimes it takes two or three. The instructors are very demanding. If your moves are not sharp and powerful, or your toes aren’t pointed, or you’re going too fast and lack precision, you don’t pass. They want to make sure you get it right. They always provide constructive critiques and generous encouragement to the students who have failed.
Usually when she gets to the stage of the belt test, which is a big deal, she’s got it all covered. Yesterday afternoon she was exceptionally nervous. She said she wasn’t sure if she could do it. I told her I knew she could. I have also been telling her for weeks that whatever happens, I am proud of how hard she has worked and proud of her for sticking to it. I knew this was not a sure thing. A few weeks ago I told her that whether she advanced to the next belt now or in a few months, I would still be proud of her, and either way she would still be moving toward her goal, which she says is to become a black belt and a student instructor. I struggle sometimes with making sure martial arts is her thing and not my thing. I try to motivate her to practice without nagging. Sometimes I am more successful than others. But I know how good she feels after she practices and I love seeing her face light up when she knows she has turned the corner and really knows what she’s doing.
So she took the test yesterday and she performed her techniques well. I didn’t see most of them because I was chasing Zeke around the studio, but Randy was watching. He left work early to see her test, at her request. After all the kids had tested, the instructors called each student up individually to discuss his or her scores. Zoe was the last of 12.
Because of her nervousness, when she said that the virtue she should improve upon is timeliness, and they asked her to explain it, she froze and couldn’t remember what to say. She knows what timeliness is. She explained it perfectly in class on Saturday, to the same instructor. She has practiced her answer at home with me more than a dozen times.
But somehow yesterday the answer wouldn’t come. That happens to all of us sometimes. At least it does to me.
So she failed the test, even though the instructor said she did great at everything else.
Fortunately she has an opportunity to take the test again on Friday. She will have to do everything all over again.
I realize that this may not sound at all like a big deal. There are no lasting consequences. It’s an enriching activity, not the Olympic trials. This is not going on her permanent record. But to her it’s a big deal. She has been working so hard toward this for months. And months to a seven-year-old can seem like years.
But she handled it well. She was disappointed, but she bounced back. We discussed possible options for helping her to practice and memorize her answer so it would come to her as easily as the techniques that she has engrained into her muscle memory. She was open to my suggestions.
On the back of one of her martial arts shirts it says RESILIENCE. It’s funny because it’s not like they say to your kids when they walk into the martial arts studio, “you are going to fail, so get used to it.” This is not boot camp. They are not cruel. But they know that the kids will struggle and they will fail and that when they finally master something and it all clicks and they succeed it will mean so much more to them. Master Emerson, the head instructor and owner of the studio, has said something to this effect to them many times. And if you can struggle and fail and persevere and not give up, it is indeed that much sweeter when you come out on top.
At the growth ceremony where the students break their boards for the final part of their tests and then are awarded their next belts, there is a lot of communal inhaling and exhaling. They call the kids up in small groups and they practice a few times with targets and then everyone counts down from three to prepare the students to break their boards. Many kids break them on the first try and there is wild cheering and applause. Some kids take a couple tries. Still more cheering and applause. And some kids take five or six or more times to break the boards. Once it took Zoe seven tries. So much tension. So much. Whether it’s your kid or someone else’s, because everyone knows that feeling. And when the student finally breaks that board after so many tries, there is seriously wild cheering and applause. That is a hard-earned victory.
Zoe does not give up. I am so immensely proud of her for this. Like anyone else, she may need a moment to collect herself, to feel all those hard feelings, and then she gets up and tries again. Enabling her to cultivate this quality is so important. The number one thing I want to teach my kids is to be kind, but after that this trait of resilience is high on the list. Whether you’re in second grade or in college or out in the complicated world in which we live, there will always be challenges coming at you, and sometimes they will knock you flat. If Zoe can continue to get back up again and start over, she will survive.
Tonight I was called in for Zeke’s second bedtime shift, after Randy had rocked him to sleep, put him in the crib, shushed him and left the room and Zeke decided he wasn’t yet ready to go to bed. This used to happen often. Now, thankfully, it is only occasional. Zeke typically goes to bed on the first try. He sleeps through the night about two-thirds of the time. That’s just the way it is.
It is easy to become frustrated when Zeke won’t go to sleep or when he wakes up during the night. He is as light a sleeper as his sister is a deep sleeper. I won’t lie and say we don’t often get exasperated, because we do.
But tonight when I went in to take my turn, I sang my lullabies in my scratchy voice and tried not to cough too much. And I snuggled Zeke in my arms. I stuffed his feet back into the sleep sack. I wrapped an extra blanket around him when he gestured to it lying in his crib. He drank a few more ounces of milk and he fell asleep. He was asleep long before I finished “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” traditionally my benediction lullaby, my way of praying for the people we love.
But I kept holding him tight and rocking and thinking of the people who can’t tuck in their babies anymore. My heart broke a couple weeks ago when my mom’s friend lost her 21-year-old son to a rare disease. She was the third of my mom’s good friends to lose a son in as many years. And my heart shattered all over again last week when 8-year-old Emily Barkes and her mom died in a fire in their home. Emily was in third grade at Zoe’s school. Zoe’s beloved teacher was Emily’s teacher last year. Emily’s 11-year-old sister Sarah and their dad survived. Sarah is still in the hospital recovering from injuries. I keep thinking of the fire and the aftermath and how Sarah and her Dad are even functioning. I keep thinking about how that could happen to us. And then you have to stop thinking because your brain just short circuits if you think that way for too long.
Tonight I was thinking about how Bill Barkes never imagined that night would be the last one he would spend with his wife, and that it would be the last time he could tuck his daughter into bed. I just couldn’t bring myself to put Zeke back in his crib. I kept thinking of the chorus of an old Pat McGee song “if I could hold you tonight, I might never let go” even though that’s about a girlfriend and not a son. I felt the weight of his muscular little toddler body in my lap and on my chest. One of his arms around me and one curled under himself. I leaned in and kissed his soft hair. I gave thanks for his breathing. I wished for him happiness, health, safety, and peace. I held him and rocked and promised myself I would always appreciate the opportunity to hold him, even when he’s going berserk and I’m very tired.
If you would like to help Emily’s family deal with their medical expenses and rebuild, there is a fund set up here: http://www.gofundme.com/gsvlsc
Tonight we had to tell Zoe that a third grader at her school and her mom were killed in a house fire this morning. There were no smoke detectors at their house. The girl’s older sibling and dad are in the hospital.
We talked about how horrible it was and how we felt sad for her family and her friends and her classmates. We talked about why smoke detectors are important and what we would do if there were a fire in our house. We assured Zoe that we would run into her and her brother’s room and carry them out of the house.
We held Zoe and rubbed her back and I thought about the other heartbreaking tragedies that have happened to people we know that she doesn’t even know about. I’m not even sure what this means to her, but I know that she, like her parents, has a big heart and a lot of compassion, and the idea of a third grader whom she might have seen on the playground or in the cafeteria suddenly not existing anymore is probably overwhelming.
After a few minutes and a few tears and a few tissues, I asked if she had any other questions. At first she shook her head. Then she nodded, and said, “Can we not talk about this anymore right now?” A reasonable request. So we went downstairs and she got out her colored pencils and we all drew pictures. She drew a bear dressed as a robot for Halloween. It is good to be able to switch gears. I think that gets harder as you grow up.
After I tucked her into bed when I was walking down the hall she called me back into her room. “Will we have a fire drill tomorrow at school?” She asked. I told her I didn’t think so. I was picturing a lot of tearful students and teachers. A lot of questions. She was thinking about how to be safe. I will think a little harder than usual about how to keep my babies safe, as best I can.