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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.

joe merritt art-2

Some of Joe Merritt’s art

 

 

Yesterday at church I shared a reflection on resilience.

You can read it below, or watch the video of the service here (Click on archives and the service called What Freedom Is For) or watch it here.

Reading it is fine, but if you watch you’ll get to hear some cool theme music in the middle of my reflection. And there’s a wonderful baby dedication before my reflection. Also my call to worship sets the stage for my reflection, so you should really watch the whole thing. 🙂

Resilience

After Marine Sergeant Joe Merritt returned from his deployment in Afghanistan in 2009, his life began to unravel. Not surprisingly, he had experienced a traumatic brain injury on his tour and he was dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, but neither issue had been officially diagnosed so he wasn’t yet receiving treatment. Then his wife suddenly left, so he was on his own caring for his baby boy and his two-year-old son with autism.

With the help of a visiting nurse from the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, Joe found support for his family, received treatment for depression, and experienced catharsis in art therapy. He started participating in a program called Combat Paper, which helps veterans articulate their combat experience through art by literally turning their uniforms into paper. Once the cloth becomes pulp and is pressed into paper, veterans can do anything they want with it. “Everybody’s got a story about combat,” Joe told me. “Those stories are hard to tell sometimes. Combat Paper gives you a medium. You’re taking something you’re so attached to and breaking it down and making it your own. When you’re deployed, you don’t always have a say in what you do. Once your uniform becomes paper, you can have a say. You can paint on it or just shred it and throw it away.”

Joe made progress, but he didn’t magically get better. As he prepared to leave the Marine Corps so he could focus on caring for his boys, Joe’s mental state plummeted and he attempted suicide. Thankfully, he survived, and entered an inpatient treatment center, where art and writing helped him truly come alive again.

Now Joe is an artist whose work often explores the darkness of his combat experience. Joe also teaches art to fellow veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda and helps connect them with artistic outlets in the community. He bought a home on the Eastern Shore and he and his boys have experimented with all kinds of artistic techniques to decorate it.

I’ve interviewed Joe several times and I follow him and his boys on Facebook. He is a long way from the edge of the abyss that threatened to claim him years ago, but his life is not easy. He still falls down and stands up all the time.

***

In my own story of resilience, I literally fall down. I get real black and blue bruises. And, slowly but surely, I stand up again.

When I was growing up, I did not play sports. My family is about books and music and plays and museums. It took me years to learn to ride a bike and to swim. I was accused, not unjustly, of being uncoordinated and clumsy. I could find no evidence to the contrary.

In 2003, I met my husband Randy, a lifelong soccer player. You know how you do crazy things when you fall in love with someone? I joined his soccer team. Because they loved

Randy, his teammates were generous in welcoming me onto the field, despite my utter lack of athletic ability or knowledge of the game. I was terrified before and throughout every game.

Twelve years later, after my daughter Zoe had been playing with her soccer team for a while, I learned about a summer soccer clinic for adult beginners. The class was primarily aimed at parents who had never played or had played as kids, but who wanted to learn or improve their skills because their kids were playing. I signed up. The clinic was fantastic. I had so much fun. Many of the people on the field with me had as little experience and as many apprehensions as I did, but we had a great time together. When it ended, we were encouraged to sign up for pickup games sponsored by the parks department, so I did. At my very first actual game, I was knocked down—twice—within the first five minutes of play. I did not return to the pickup games.

The following spring, a fellow freelance writer who had also taken the adult beginner soccer clinic, asked me to join the women’s soccer team she was forming to play in the 40+ division. She had never been on a team before but was willing to try. The team was called Ice & Ibuprofen. We were realistic.

The first game was rough. Playing left back, I froze as a striker from the other team blew past me and scored. I assumed it was all my fault. I felt slightly better when the same player blew past other defenders when I was subbed out on the sidelines. She scored three goals. I guess it wasn’t just me. Still, I felt clumsy and embarrassed. After that game I went home and cried.

But the next Monday I showed up again, and over the course of the season I got a little better. Our team got a little better. More importantly, I started having a lot of fun. I was proud of myself just for playing a whole game. Actually I was proud of myself for showing up. The women on my team were kind and encouraging and played with heart. Only a few of us had soccer experience, but it didn’t matter. I got knocked down many times. I bruised some ribs. A few of my teammates have sustained injuries on the field that required surgery. But every one of them has come back the next season, stronger and more determined.

When you’re five and you draw a picture of your family, everyone says it’s wonderful even if your family members bear no resemblance to people. It doesn’t matter. When you’re a kid you are heralded as a great artist or athlete or inventor whether or not you have any talent. You’re encouraged to try and allowed to have fun engaged in any activity.

Then at some point between that state of grace and adulthood, we stifle that energy and enthusiasm. People say, “Oh I can’t sing,” or “I can’t draw,” or “I’m not athletic” because somewhere along the line that’s what we felt or were told. Instead of standing up after that final insensitive blow, we simply crawled away.

It is hard to get into our heads as grownups that it’s ok to do something even if we’re not very good at it. We can enjoy it anyway. Even if we never get better!

Ice & Ibuprofen plays in the spring and fall, but I decided this year I wanted to keep up the momentum and get some exercise by playing in the summer. A friend from high school recruited me to play on a team in a different league in a different county. Once again, I was kind of terrified. I showed up and I didn’t know a soul on the field—my friend hadn’t arrived yet—but I jumped in the game. I did not play well. I was nervous and also everyone there was far more skilled than I was. And most of the women seemed to be 10 or 20 years older as well. It was tough. But I went back the next week, and I played with just the slightest bit more confidence. I fell down. I have a big bruise on my calf right now. But I stood up again.

***

My resilience role model is my daughter, Zoe. She is sensitive, but fierce.

Three years ago, when she was seven, Zoe was about to advance from a yellow belt to a green belt at her martial arts studio. She has practiced martial arts since kindergarten, and mastered many techniques, and under her bed she has a big box of boards she has broken. At this ceremony, however, when she was moving from yellow to green, she had to break a thicker board—a much thicker board—than at previous levels.

She had actually broken one of the thick boards before—during summer camp at the martial arts studio—and on the first try. But there’s no pressure at summer camp. Nothing at stake.

At the growth ceremony, however, all the students are there. Hundreds of parents, grandparents, and siblings are there. Everyone in the room counts down 3-2-1 while pounding the floor when it’s time for each group to break their boards.

Understandably, it’s not uncommon for a kid to not break the board on the first try. It’s hard and it’s nerve wracking. Everyone is watching. But the instructors at this school are wonderful, and they give the kids many chances, and coaching, and opportunities to practice. Usually, everyone gets it within a few tries, or in some cases, a dozen or two.

For whatever reason, on this day, Zoe just wasn’t connecting with the board with enough force to break through. The instructors gave her extra chances and then eventually 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.

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. Her instructors continued to coach, reminding 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—NOT that it had taken her so long to break the board—but because I jumped up and down and screamed and picked her up and spun her around after she did it. Everyone who had stayed was cheering wildly for Zoe and taking pictures.

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. That’s what I always remember when I fall down. She just remained standing. She wouldn’t let that board keep her down.

May we all have the resilience to keep kicking until we break that board, even if it takes all day. And then at the end to simply be proud of ourselves for not giving up. Fall down and stand up for the millionth time, and say, “Hey, I stood up again. This is a great day!”

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 10.36.00 PMMy daughter is finishing a book in bed, reading with her book light while her brother sleeps on the other side of the room. This fills me with such delight I do not care how late she stays up. It helps that today is the last day of school, and there is nowhere she needs to be in the morning. I have turned off my 6:30am weekday alarm until September. My husband pointed out this morning that I never get up at 6:30 anyway. But that’s when I am supposed to get up, and that’s when I need to begin the process of gradually waking up and hitting snooze until it is absolutely necessary to get out of bed and start the day.

I am thankful there will be no more late passes until the fall. When Zoe and I looked at her end-of-year report card today at lunch I noticed that her teacher, or the school, or some benevolent being, didn’t even count her tardies for the fourth quarter, which were numerous. Only some of them were her fault. A few were mine. Many were caused by her brother needing to poop at the precise moment we’re walking out the door. Now he can poop any time of the morning that he pleases, because who cares if you’re late to camp?

Speaking of pooping, we are done with diapers! This feels miraculous to me, a day I was never quite sure would arrive. I discovered with Zeke that having a kid potty train when he has a fully functioning bladder is not so bad. I have a greater appreciation for Zoe’s years of struggle with a recalcitrant bladder and immense gratitude that it went so smoothly for Zeke. Now all we have to do every morning is pick out which superhero underwear he wants to wear. Tonight we discussed whether Superman wears underwear with little pictures of Zeke on it. He said Superman’s underwear also has pictures of Zoe and me on it. I guess that makes sense, since some of Zeke’s underwear has Superman, Batman, the Flash, and Green Lantern. So when Amazon delivers underwear to Metropolis, perhaps it’s the Rosso Family variety pack.

After Zoe and I and a few hundred students and parents from her school watched all the teachers and staff do their song and dance numbers after dismissal, one of my favorite traditions at Zoe’s school, we went out to eat so I could have lunch and Zoe could have pie while we pored over the last day contents of her backpack, including several more items that her teacher gave away to the kids so she wouldn’t have to pack them up today because the school renovation starts Monday. Zoe already came home bearing a dictionary, an atlas, and several other books she was thrilled to have “won” in class. Her teacher is quite clever.

Then at Zoe’s suggestion we went to a paint-your-own-pottery studio and made mosaics, which we had never done there before. We had a lovely, meditative time together, which we always do when we make art. She also painted a bowl. They sent us home with grouting kits to use to finish the mosaics in 48 hours when the glue dries. I have never grouted before. Exciting!

Finally, I am thankful that the three of us enjoyed an unprecedentedly peaceful dinner tonight at Silver Diner, which I allowed Zoe to choose in celebration of the last day of school and her great report card. We went after her martial arts class, and after I let the kids run around the turf room at martial arts fighting with swords made of pool noodles, and after Zeke totally averted a tantrum on his own when Zoe handed him a plain noodle instead of one with Superman duct tape on it, and after we talked with Zoe’s instructor about what’s required of her to earn her red solid belt at the end of the summer, and after we got snow cones (blue raspberry, cherry, and grape for Zoe; pineapple and strawberry for Zeke and me to share) from the truck in the Evolve All parking lot because I had promised the kids last week we would get them tonight. So really you can see we went to dinner quite late and given all that I fully expected any or all of us to meltdown, but we didn’t! Everyone ate all of their food. Zoe discovered she liked asparagus after eating it accidentally thinking it was green beans. We even got milkshakes (yes, I was super indulgent today–whatever) and the waitress brought Zeke a sthamiltonbroadway10rawberry instead of a chocolate but he decided he liked it anyway–another chance for a tantrum that didn’t happen! We listened and sang along to Hamilton at top volume in the car on the way
home, showered, and no one argued about anything. Zeke asked me to sing “Aaron Burr, Sir” and “Helpless” in the shower but I couldn’t remember all the words, even though we’ve listened to it a gazillion times.

Seriously, this is all true. I know it sounds extraordinary. I didn’t yell at anyone all day. The kids didn’t fight. It was awesome. Of course now Zoe comes in and says she feels ill, which is probably because I let her have so many treats today. So, perhaps my fault. But otherwise it was such a lovely, peaceful day. You really need one of those every now and then.

 

 

2015-03-20 18.22.06Conversation tonight at dinner:

Zoe: “I can’t wait for my sparring class tomorrow!”

Me: “Great! I’m glad you’re so excited.”

Zoe: “How could I not be? It’s awesome!”

After dinner Randy helped Zoe mold her mouth guard so it fits her teeth.

Last week I watched Zoe during her first sparring class and I was amazed. She was not shy or scared or holding back in any way. At first she was partnered with another girl who is about her age and size and who is the same belt rank. It was also her classmate’s first night in sparring class, although they’ve been together in martial arts class since kindergarten. So that didn’t seem so crazy. They were evenly matched and that particular girl is fierce but Zoe completely held her own. They even wrestled! I’ve never seen Zoe wrestle anyone except Zeke, who is not even two yet (although he can still tackle her and knock her over). But then as the class went on, there was an exercise where the students were divided into groups of five or six and each individual had to stand at the front with the instructor and spar every person in line, one at a time. Then there was the time the whole class was in two long lines and every few minutes they rotated, so Zoe started out against her original partner but eventually was sparring with much bigger, older, and more experienced students. In the picture above, she is sparring with a black belt, one of the student instructors. I think he’s 14. He’s also exhibiting supreme control. Master Emerson instructed the big kids to be very controlled with the younger ones, and they were. But they weren’t standing back and letting the younger ones beat up on them either.

I was really shocked at how exciting it was to see Zoe spar. While martial arts is, technically, the art of war, I have never felt like Zoe’s classes at Evolve All are about fighting. They are about discipline, respect, resilience, perseverance, teamwork, compassion, technique, and kokoro–Japanese for heart. They talk about the black belt attitude, which is about improving yourself and helping others, among other attributes. During the growth ceremonies, the candidates for black belt have to read essays, break many boards using a form they’ve created, and spar with their classmates and Master Emerson for several challenging minutes. The sparring has always been my least favorite part. This is not fighting–everyone is wearing protective gear but it is not the Karate Kid and no one is actually getting hurt. It’s all about technique and stamina. You can tell from watching it is very hard work for these kids.

So I’ve always known Zoe would eventually need to start sparring, but I wasn’t in any rush. What I was eager for her to do was audition for the demo team–the group of kids who perform really impressive techniques and routines during the growth ceremonies and at community events. This was the first year she would be eligible. But then they changed the demo team meeting time to a day that didn’t work for our schedule. And Zoe’s instructor Mister Christian said that sparring was more relevant to what she was learning in class and that would be a better place to start in terms of augmenting her regular classes. And to my surprise, Zoe expressed enthusiasm about sparring. She asked for sparring gear (not cheap) for her birthday.

Last week Zoe asked me if I thought she was a tomboy, because, she said, “I like things that boys usually like, like Star Wars and martial arts and soccer.” Not to mention the series of books about tribes of crazy fighting cats that she and all her friends of both genders are obsessed with. I told her that I thought tomboy was a silly and meaningless word, and that she’s a cool person with diverse interests who didn’t feel limited by stereotypes in her choice of things to do or enjoy. I probably used other words, but that was the idea. Later in the week she approached Randy with the same question and he gave her basically the same answer (yay united parenting front!). Clearly she is thinking about what, if anything, it all means, promoted probably by starting to spar. What I think it means is that she is a strong, independent individual. How great is it to start owning your strength and independence when you’re not even eight years old? I love the fact that when boys in her class write or read something about Star Wars they rush over to tell her about it, because apparently her Star Wars fandom is well known.

Zeke wishes he could spar too. He’s always trying to put on Zoe’s gear. I wish Evolve All would bring back the young masters class for three- and four-year-olds. But Zeke will have his day on the mat. In the meantime, it’s Zoe’s turn and she is not holding back.

For her imminent eighth birthday, Zoe has asked for sparring gear (so she can participate in the sparring class at Evolve All, where she takes marPrincess Leia legotial arts), a Jedi robe (in part so she can be Luke Skywalker for Halloween, after having been Princess Leia this past Halloween), action figures from Big Hero 6; and Legos. Oh, and to get her nails done with me.

I don’t know what exactly this means, but she is a far cry from the fairy princess she used to  pretend to be. Her favorite books right now are a series about clans of cats that fight each other to establish dominance. When she asked her grandfather to guess what she planned to be for Halloween this year and he said Princess Leia, I reminded him that she had already been Princess Leia, but that he was close. I meant close as in someone else from Star Wars, but he thought I meant another princess, so he said, “someone from Frozen?” Zoe scoffed. She does like Frozen, and we watched it again just last week, but not as much as she loves Star Wars, and she said, “I would never be a princess from Frozen.”

Certainly Zoe still loves her American Girl dolls, and has taught her brother how to properly brush their hair, because he wants to get in on the grooming action. He loves to take care of her babies (and the baby–Sam–that he received for Christmas this past year) and is often stuffing pretend food into their mouths. But Zoe also has her American Girl dolls teach her baby dolls how to do tae kwan do. I think her dad is relieved that the days are over when Zoe wants to play mommy-having-a-baby or be a princess with Randy acting as prince.

She also loves to play board games and word games and sometimes she beats us at Othello and Trivial Pursuit. She loves to draw and she has created a cartoon superhero named Pet Girl, who takes care of lots of animals. She still draws lots of rainbows that say “I love you Mommy.”

She is stubborn and argumentative and has already mastered the teenage glare although she’s still five years away from adolescence. She loses things and doesn’t pay attention and asks over and over for things she know she can’t do or have. But she is also the sweetest big sister who deeply adores her little brother, even though she does get annoyed when he gets into her stuff, which happens all the time. She is thoughtful and compassionate and curious. I love the person she is and the way she is learning to see the world and her place in it. I love that she would rather look in the boys section at Old Navy for Star Wars or soccer t-shirts instead of the girls’ section for Hello Kitty. Although she did wear a sequined panda shirt today that she recently picked out. I love that she wants to wear matching clothes with her brother and take baths with him. And she wants to be elegant and beautiful and go to royal balls and tea parties and try on makeup. I don’t love the makeup. But I get it.

Part of me cringes at the thought of her sparring, and I wouldn’t let her do it if it weren’t part of the instruction at the martial arts school we love so sparring glovesmuch where they teach you that the black belt attitude is about caring, responsibility, respect, determination, and patience. It’s not about fighting. I imagine the sparring will help build her strength and confidence, which is a good thing for any kid. And you won’t be able to see her manicure underneath the sparring gloves, but her nails will definitely be lovely.

courageboard

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!

resilienceIt 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.

10172795_10152701602524045_1070376792_nToday at her 7th birthday party Zoe was asked to break four boards. Usually at the martial arts studio where she attends classes three days a week, you have the opportunity to break a board on your birthday. The instructors at her party asked if she wanted to break four. No pressure or anything. All her friends got up and broke boards, some on the first try but most after some extra coaching. And then it was Zoe’s turn. She had requested that I hold one of the boards, so I was on the mat, on one knee, holding the board and bracing for her punch.

Turns out she was pretty nervous. Lots of friends and family members were there to celebrate her. All eyes were on her. The punches and kicks that she does routinely and knows well were suddenly harder to execute. During every practice session she practically knocked the target out of the instructor’s hand, but when it was time to break the board, she would punch to it, not through it. In the end, it took many tries for her to break all four boards. But she did not give up, she did not get upset, she did not stop trying for even a second. She even smiled through most of it, when she wasn’t looking intensely focused. Where she gets this amazing determination, I do not know. But the girl has heart.

Her birthday present from her grandparents was, at her request, a wheelchair for her American girl doll, along with a medical kit, complete with leg cast and arm brace, for the doll. Zoe loves tending to her dolls and making them well. Who knows if she will actually fulfill her aspiration to become an obstetrician, but if she does, she will have an outstanding beside manner.

One of the tasks required for her to achieve the next belt level in martial arts (the big move from red stripe belt to yellow solid belt, which signifies the transition from intermediate to advanced skill) is to come up with a virtue you think is important and which you aspire to embody, and describe it for the instructors and your classmates. Zoe’s choice is respect. We have talked about respect many times recently at the dining room table. Today she asked, “Am I respectful?” I answered, “usually.” She seemed disappointed. I said, “nobody’s perfect, but you are generally respectful.” She said, “but I never hurt anyone’s feelings on purpose and I’m never mean.” And we agreed that was true and that’s part of being respectful. Randy pointed out that it’s also a part of respect to listen to your parents and not argue when they ask you to do something or stop doing something. But, I told Zoe, it is true that you are always kind. If I have tried to instill anything in her, it is to be kind. She was listening.

On our outing to the library last weekend, Zoe selected several chapter books and then we perused the nonfiction shelves while she looked for anything of interest. She picked out a book “Autism and Me: Sibling Stories.” I asked her why she chose it and if she knew what autism was. She said it looked interesting and no, she had no idea what autism was. So we went home and read it together. As it happens, this is a great book. It includes 14 first-person accounts by kids of what it’s like to live with their autistic siblings, for better or for worse. Zoe was fascinated. We had a good discussion about learning differences and challenges that some kids have and how everyone can be good at some things even if they have a hard time with others. This is a hard thing to remember, especially when we are always hearing this message that we should be the best at everything. Which is impossible. Last weekend after her winter swim clinic, Zoe was a little down. She reported that after every lap, she was the last one to finish and felt like everyone was staring at her. I said they probably weren’t staring so much as watching her finish, waiting to start their next lap. But I got the idea. Zoe is a strong swimmer and has improved her strokes vastly in the past year or so. But she’s not the fastest. But who cares? She can swim and not sink, and she knows how to do two actual swimming strokes and can cross the pool repeatedly doing those strokes. That’s enough for me. Actually that’s more than I could do in the pool myself. Hopefully it will be enough for her too. There are many things at which she excels, so it’s good to have some things you’re just fine at, but not the best, and remember that they’re fun anyway.

Such as martial arts. Zoe’s fierce determination has enabled her to advance over the past two years. Certainly there are other kids who are stronger and technically better at martial arts. But Zoe has heart, and she has fun. And she is equally at ease becoming a magical fairy or caring for her dolls. Not to mention caring for her actual baby brother, whom she adores. I can’t wait until he starts learning martial arts from her. He already enjoys playing with her dolls, although he mostly tends to slobber on their heads or poke their eyes. In a brilliant marriage of her interests, I managed to find a martial arts uniform for Zoe’s American girl doll. And in an uncharacteristic moment of craftiness, I managed to put the logo of Zoe’s martial arts studio on the back of the doll’s jacket, to match the new uniform we gave Zoe for her birthday. 1011106_10152701603484045_910405362_nI am not a crafty person, but I wanted to do something extra special for Zoe, because she’s an extra special kid.

Happy birthday, Zoe. I love you and admire you so much. Love, Mommy

When I arrived at school yesterday to pick Zoe up after her last day of kindergarten, I found her, fully clothed in her Abingdon t-shirt (“I want to wear it on the last day to show everyone how much I like Abingdon,” she said) and some shorts, sitting and splashing in a baby pool with several of her friends to cool off. She was soaked. And why not? What else is there to do after the last day of school? Apparently water games were part of the last day carnival that the extended day teachers creatively and generously put on for the kids but Zoe neglected to tell me about it the night before. Whatever. It’s the last day of school! Getting wet in your clothes makes it easier to not be too sad about the end of a fabulous year.

I saw Zoe’s wonderful teacher in the hallway as I was wheeling Zeke through the school to find Zoe, and thanked her again. Part of me wanted to hug her, but I knew if I did I would cry and I didn’t feel like she needed to deal with me crying. I did tell her, despite myself, that I found out I was pregnant with Zeke on the first day of school. So somehow the last day of school seemed like my little baby bubble was popping. I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of help and support from family and friends over the past eight weeks to make life easier for me and to allow me to focus on Zeke. Randy has driven Zoe to school every day since Zeke was born, which has been huge. On Monday Zoe will start camp which, thankfully, begins an hour and a half later than school starts, so it will be once again up to me to take charge of things in the morning. I am confident I can handle this, but I’m a little sad for the end of my morning repose with Zeke.

But I digress. While Zoe finished splashing with her friends, I nursed Zeke in the hallway, briefly chatting with the strings teacher, greeting other teachers who walked by, and meeting the technology teacher when she came by to admire Zeke. I saw tonight that she had posted a video of the Big Wave, an Abingdon tradition where all the teachers and staff sing and dance and send off the kids on the last afternoon. I love this school. Throughout the year, and especially over the past few weeks when it would seem all learning had ceased, Zoe did so many fun and interesting things at school. Her teachers and the other kindergarten teachers found creative and enriching activities to keep them engaged. She learned about Betsy Ross, magnets, the different between needs and wants, and introductory economics using musical chairs. The extended day teachers brought in a DJ for a dance party and hosted a slumber party. Field day was apparently the most fun Zoe had ever had in her life. Last night we went through a variety of workbooks and projects that Zoe brought home. She read us her end of the year book. She thoughtfully completed the final few pages in the My Kindergarten Year book that we gave her at the beginning of the year. Tonight we took her out for dinner at the restaurant of her choice (Lost Dog) followed by dessert of her choice (Dairy Queen) to celebrate her accomplishments during kindergarten and today’s tae kwan do belt ceremony where she broke her board (on the second try!) and earned her green stripe belt. We made toasts to each other.

Afternoons managing two kids are challenging, and this year has not been without its tough spots, including Zoe’s surgery, a rough pregnancy, and the trying minutiae that gets magnified and seems to consume us sometimes. But it’s lovely to end the year on a good note. We have a delightful rising first-grader and a cute baby boy who now often greets us with smiles. So what if the air conditioner is broken. We are lucky people. Let’s go jump in the baby pool.

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