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This is the essay Zoe wrote as part of her requirements to earn her black belt at EvolveAll, a phenomenal accomplishment that she achieved today.

By Zoe Rosso

When I was four, a friend from preschool invited me to her birthday party at her Taekwondo studio. Afterwards I said to my mom, “I want to do that!” We found Creative Martial Arts down the street from our house, next to CVS. I did a two-week trial there, a tiny five-year-old with curly hair, and immediately loved it. It was a tiny space, but the community there was amazing. I remember sitting next to my friends Ellie, Matthew, Samantha, learning how to do a side kick. It looked so hard! I didn’t know how the instructors could do it so well. Now, side kick is one of my favorite kicks.       

 A couple years later CMA moved locations and became EvolveAll. I got my blue stripe belt there. I also had two birthday parties there, my seventh and my eighth. I clearly remember at my eighth birthday when my mom along with my friends’ parents ran around trying to play green big ball, and somehow they beat us? The new studio was so much bigger than CMA. There was a turf room that always had kids playing in it, and a huge mat.

My favorite and most clear memory from EvolveAll one is when I got my green solid belt. I heard my name called by Mr. Herill. I ran up to him. I heard everyone yell “3,2,1!” and kicked, but the board didn’t break, and after many tries I was still unsuccessful at breaking my board. Master Emerson took me aside into the turf room to try some more. And I was still unsuccessful. I remember being so frustrated with myself, but I would not cry. I needed to stay strong if I wanted that green solid! I went back into the crowded main room and tried once again with Mr. Christian to break my board, this time by myself in front of everybody there. I could hear people cheering my name, they wanted me to break it. I just couldn’t! I tried so much more in the turf room. I remember Master Emerson saying, “If you don’t break this today I can’t give you your green solid.” That thought was what motivated me to try as hard as I could to break this board. We went back in to watch the remainder of the growth ceremony. I still hadn’t cried even though I wanted to. I was close to giving up, I was tired. I just wanted to go home, but not nearly as much as I wanted my next belt. After the growth ceremony was over, and everyone but the staff and a few families had gone home, I tried again. My parents, the Zoellers, the Gookins, Samantha and her mom, Master Emerson, and a few other people were standing and watching me with their fingers crossed. Mr. Christian was holding my board. Just the strength and support from a few very important people in my life, were enough for me to finally let out that one last “HIYAH” and kick right through the board. I remember everyone yelling and cheering for me. Mr. Christian was jumping up and down, and my mom lifted me up into the air and she was probably crying. I was so happy, overwhelmed and excited all at the same time. Afterwards, we went to lunch at Zoe’s Kitchen. My mom asked me how I felt. Instead of saying embarrassed, upset, sore, or anything like that, I said to her, “I feel awesome!” and smiled. This moment has stayed with me through the past three years. If something gets hard, or I just don’t feel like I am capable of doing something, I remember that moment. If I have perseverance and resilience, then I can do anything and the feeling of completing it is amazing. Whether its breaking a board, learning a form, or getting a kick down. This also helps me work through other things in my life, like math, and especially science. 

 Another challenge for me was sparring. I started when I was around eight. I got a full bag of gear for my birthday and I was eager to start my first class. At EvolveAll one, I was sparring against teenagers like Sydney and Arnab. Since then, at EvolveAll two and three, sparring has changed a lot. Now, we warm up, condition, maybe do grappling or partner work or go over drills, and then do free sparring. It used to be where we would warm up and then go straight into sparring. We had to wear helmets, gloves, and several other pieces of gear, and then we would start to spar. From there we would rotate after every round to our right, so we had to spar against everybody. I always enjoy it now and I have learned a lot. For example, I feel much better about my kicks. I used to be too scared to kick someone, but I kick harder and higher now. I also am more confident, instead of just letting myself get hit, I counter or move away.            

One thing I am grateful for in my journey at Evolve All is the friends I have made over the past seven years. Some of them have been there since the beginning, like Quinn, Kira, Ellie, Matthew.  I love watching them grow and move up. I know that they have my back and will always support me. It is amazing that this sport brings so many people of different ages together. For example, I am friends with Kira, who’s 10, and she is just like my friends who are my age. And Sophie, who’s 16, but it isn’t any different. She is now my great mentor and friend. She is a great teacher but she is still fun. I also like that we can teach each other easily. I’m not afraid to ask my friends for help, and they always are willing to help me. I love the community with the staff as well. All the instructors are so nice and welcoming, and great teachers. What makes the teachers so good is they are fun, but work you hard. They make you feel comfortable. They aren’t afraid to laugh and make jokes and have fun with you in class, but they know how to control the class and teach it well and effectively. 

At EvolveAll one, I would always watch the black belts with amazement. In my eyes, they were bigger, older, more talented people who could do anything, and I was just a little kid who was a yellow solid. My mom would always ask me if I could see myself becoming a black belt. My answer? No way! That’s a big kid thing. I knew I would eventually get there, but it just seemed so far away that I never thought about it. If someone told me that in four years I would be writing this essay and becoming a black belt, I would not have believed it. So, when the time came that I needed to start thinking about the prospect of getting that black belt, I knew I had to step it up. I scheduled a couple private lessons, and we found out that Matthew Gookin was also doing private lessons to help him get ready to earn his black belt. We decided to schedule some lessons with him so we could practice together. These private lessons were helpful for me. I enjoyed having the extra time to practice and I think this was where the biggest part of the switch happened. I went from looking up at the higher belts and not being able to imagine myself being with them, to seeing my friends move up. At EA2, I saw people like Grant and Quinn, who I knew were my age, earn their black belts. Seeing them get achieve that, I realized that I could too. And I was just that much closer to doing it. I started to feel different. I felt better about being closer, and I could see myself improving. I was proud of myself for working hard and learning the form well.

Mr. Christian always talks about the “switch” that people have in their martial arts journey. For me, my switch was at EA2. I took a break from martial arts for about eight months because it was my last year of elementary school, so of course I had to fit in everything before I left. I was doing Girls on the Run, soccer, and gymnastics. I came back in September. A few months after we came back, I went to my second black belt test, and earned two stripes. From then on, I realized how close I was to getting my black belt.

Even though I was improving, I still didn’t feel ready. Something just felt off. Maybe I was scared, maybe I wanted more practice, maybe I thought I needed more practice teaching, or I just needed more time. When the black belt test came around, I talked to Master Emerson. I told him I didn’t feel ready. He understood. At the end of the test, I met with all the black belts. Master Emerson said that the reason I wasn’t moving up that time was that even though all the black belts thought I was ready, I didn’t feel ready, which is one of the most important things you need to move up. If you don’t feel confident, or ready, then you won’t have enough courage or the right mindset to become a black belt. This time though, I knew I was ready. I felt good, and strong. I feel ready. I got this.

When I was taking Biology 101 the first semester of my freshman year at William and Mary, and I realized I was failing, I went to see the professor. I told him I didn’t understand why I was failing–I’d never received lower than a B in my life, with the exception of some rough spots in Calculus and Chemistry in 11th grade. I had certainly never failed a class.

I had also never had to study that much. It turned out college classes were just a wee bit more rigorous than what I was used to in high school. The Biology professor asked if I was an English major. I said yes, but I didn’t understand how that was relevant. “You have to know the parts of the cell,” he explained. “You have to identify each part and where it goes and explain what it does. You can’t just understand the idea of a cell or describe the meaning of a cell.”

I realized I needed to get my act together to pass, which I did by a hair, with a D minus. I also avoided taking any further biology classes until my last semester of senior year, when I enrolled in “Insects in Society” to fulfill the science requirement I needed to graduate.

Between college and now my abilities to pay close attention, to adapt and apply focus to a variety of tasks, and certainly to take new challenges seriously, have all improved. Thankfully I have learned a few things since I was 18. But in most cases I couldn’t pinpoint where or when I figured out how to step up my game. I just evolved.

In recent years I have been privileged to watch my daughter’s transformation in martial arts from someone who understands the idea of the techniques and gets the concept of martial arts to someone who literally embodies the precision, power, persistence, grace, and strength of a martial artist.

Zoe began taking martial arts classes the same week she started kindergarten. She was energetic and determined and cute. She was not especially powerful, focused, or coordinated. Not that that matters so much when you’re five. Emerson Doyle, who owns the studio that was Creative Martial Arts when Zoe started there and which later became EvolveAll, has always emphasized that martial arts is for life. Studying martial arts is about each individual’s journey to grow, learn, and yes, evolve. The staff at EvolveAll has high but age-appropriate expectations.

Master Emerson and his team of instructors have consistently encouraged and motivated Zoe and her classmates. They are patient and kind but also unwavering in their demands that students push themselves and do their best.

I have always appreciated how in martial arts, unlike in many other settings, Zoe struggled–and sometimes failed–to pass a particular test or master a specific technique in a given time period, but never gave up. EvolveAll’s instructors have always made it clear that you will always get another chance. You have to work, and nothing is handed to you, but you will always get another chance.

For a long time I watched Zoe practicing martial arts and, while of course I was proud of the hard work she was doing with her body and mind, I wondered if she was going to really get it. Even though every parent knows they’re not supposed to compare their kids to other kids, when you’re sitting there watching other kids seemingly excel at a difficult task with ease, it can be hard not to wonder why it’s hard for your kid. Sometimes I felt like Zoe was performing a dance–which was beautiful–based on martial arts, rather than actual martial arts. I remember for the first few years she was practicing, Mr. Christian would constantly remind her to kick higher–above her belt. I remember watching her during class and seeing her mind wander as she got distracted or played with her hair or her belt or just gazed out the window. I would try to get her attention with my mind and look intently at her, motioning that she needed to look at the instructors and pay attention. I’m sure I said it out loud more than once. Probably not that helpful.

Christian and Emerson talk about “the switch” that students make at some point in their martial arts practice. The moment where they truly get it, where they lock in to how to master their bodies and their minds–at least for 45 minutes at a time–when they start to understand the black belt mindset. For a long time, I didn’t have any idea when Zoe would reach that point. She didn’t either.

At every growth ceremony when we watched students completing their black belt requirements, I would ask Zoe if she could see herself in their position someday. She would always shake her head no.

From the beginning, when she was in kindergarten, she said her goal was to become a black belt, but she couldn’t quite picture how that would actually happen.

When Zoe was nine, she earned her red solid belt, which is the final step before black belt at EvolveAll. For all the lower belt ranks, there are a series of specific, concrete requirements for students to advance to the next belt level. Once you’re a red solid, however, the process becomes exasperatingly intangible. Instructors are looking for the blackbelt mindset. They’re looking for “the switch.” And you really can’t predict when it’s going to happen.

I was worried at one point when Zoe’s friend Ellie, who she had been in class with for years, earned her black belt, and Zoe didn’t. Ellie was two years older than Zoe, and significantly bigger and stronger. It was clear that Ellie had made the switch, but I was afraid Zoe would be upset or feel like she’d been left behind. Instead, Zoe seemed to be genuinely thrilled for Ellie, and definitely nowhere close to ready to follow her. I had to trust Zoe’s knowledge of herself, which can be hard. It’s always tough to know how much to push your kid and when to back off. I’ve had to remind myself many times of Emerson’s mantra that martial arts is for life, and there is no rush, no race for Zoe to finish. There is conditioning, community, and challenge, and that is plenty.

Then, a couple years ago, Zoe started to envision her path. She made becoming a black belt her goal, not just for someday, but for that year, and then the next year. She stopped asking if she could skip class when she was tired. She started going to more classes. She asked me to take her to the studio for extra practice when a test was coming up. She started helping teach the lower belt classes. At first she was not good at teaching and had no confidence in her ability. Then she got better and gained confidence. She stopped being afraid of sparring and embraced it. She started winning some of her grappling matches. Meanwhile, she grew several inches and learned to kick higher than I thought possible.

Every growth period includes a black belt pre-test, which all red solids and black belts are invited to participate in. Master Emerson works these kids hard during these tests. It is intense. Over 90 minutes they do hundreds of exercises and demonstrate techniques and grapple and spar. At the end of the test, all of the current black belts gather with the instructors to discuss which red solids are ready to move up, and prepare to become black belts.

At the test this past June, all the current black belts and the instructors thought Zoe was ready. But Zoe did not think Zoe was ready. So Master Emerson said she needed to wait. If Zoe didn’t believe she could become a black belt, she shouldn’t become a black belt. Yet.

The next black belt pre-test rolled around this October. This time, Zoe knew exactly who she was and what she could do and she did it. After Master Emerson announced that she would be one of three red solids who were selected to prepare to become black belts this time around, all the girls in the class mobbed Zoe in a sweaty group hug. Mister Christian walked off the mat and gave me a hug, because he has seen how much time I’ve spent watching Zoe practice and had countless conversations with me about what she needed to do to reach her goals and how we could help her, and now she was there. Or almost there.

One week from tomorrow, Zoe will attempt to complete the requirements to earn her black belt in martial arts.

She will break five boards using five different techniques. She will grapple and spar with her friend and mentor Sophie, who has been patiently helping her train, insisting that Zoe use more power, more power, more power. She will read from the essay she’s written about her journey from white belt to black belt. Once she has successfully conquered these challenges, she will take off her red solid belt and hang it around her neck. Sophie will take off her own black belt and tie it around Zoe’s waist. Zoe will receive an actual sword. And she will chop fruit with it. I will probably cry.

Most importantly, Zoe will know that she worked toward this moment for seven years. Just like she was in kindergarten, she is energetic, determined, and cute. But a lot has happened since then. Now Zoe is strong and powerful, persistent and resilient, generous and graceful. Of course I will be proud. But I’m already proud, not because of what she’s about to do, but because of who she is and what she has learned about herself.

When we arrived
after an eight-hour drive
he ran in circles around the car
and the yard
eager to move his body

Inside he found some toys
in the back room
with his six-year-old sixth sense
and set up games for himself to play

He paged through a craft book
sticking post-it notes to 
every activity he wanted to try

He admired the sewing machine and 
said he wanted to learn to sew
“that’s a useful talent,” he said.

He helped set up a TV and 
its accessories and discussed
power tools with my cousin

Way past usual bedtime
he said he needed something else to eat
so I led him to the pantry
“they have a pantry?” he asked in awe
I pointed out crackers and fruit cups and applesauce
He backed into the pantry and closed the door

A few minutes later he emerged
after my cousin opened the door for him
He had been stuck
but evidently not alarmed
and emerged with a box of Reduced Fat Wheat Thins
which he brought into our bedroom
He ate crackers while reading to me the
nutrition facts and marketing ploys on the box
I tried to explain “less is more.”

Then we read an Elephant and Piggie book
I was Elephant
He was Piggie
We snuggled
and fell asleep

by Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso
October 2019

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