Jenna Holloway English TAG 10 February 07, 2003

I was told I could leave and lose nothing or continue and risk everything. These words prompted one of the toughest decisions I had to make the summer I was fourteen. It was the end of a three-year journey studying the martial arts and the beginning of a brand new voyage. The time had come for me to test for a black belt, the highest and most honorable rank in Taekwondo. The four-hour test I was going to take would require courage, endurance, strength, and discipline. I hoped I could hold up to the high standards.

* * *

My nerves ran wild when I woke up on July 14th, 2000. I had been studying martial arts since the fifth grade when I obsessed over popular TV shows, Power Rangers and Captain Planet. Ever since the first day I walked into the dojang*, testing for black belt had lingered in the back of my mind. Now that the day had finally come, I realized I had no idea what the test would be like. The only prerequisite I had was to write a three-page essay on "What TaeKwonDo means to me". The cost of the test totaled a pricey 300 dollars, which covered the cost associated with being in the presence of Master Parks, one of three eighth degree black belts in the world. I was supposed to feel honored that I would even get the chance to meet this high-ranking man from Korea, but any honor I felt was suppressed by fear and nervousness.

Around noontime, I went to get dressed in my crisp, white uniform. I had made sure, the night before, that it was washed and ironed because points could easily be deducted for an unclean appearance. I also filed my toe and fingernails because I heard a rumor that Master Parks found long nails offensive. Then I pulled up my hair high upon my head and tied it with a discreet rubber tie. Any hair that got in my eyes or face could not be fixed during the test. Then I grabbed my sparring gear, shin and arm guards, a padded helmet, and a water bottle. I packed my supplies in a big black Adidas bag and put it in the car. I urged my dad to hurry so I wouldn't be reprimanded for lateness.

When I arrived at Parks Martial Arts Dojang I could already feel the tension. Two other boys who were also testing for black belt, Scott and Kevin Johnson, were already meditating in the middle of the floor. In front of them sat my instructor, Master Eric Thompson, at a makeshift card- table desk. Hurriedly, I removed my shoes and went to meditate beside Scott and Kevin. It seemed no sooner then I sat down then Master Parks came out of the back room. He was wearing a majestic uniform lined in gold and black. Everyone, including Master Thompson and the parents (who were watching from the sidelines), stood up at his entrance. Master Thompson gave the command, "Cheriot! Cookie-ae da-hayo Kun-yae!", which translates into, "Bow! Show respect for the master!". After the four of us bowed deeply to Master Parks, the parents sat down and the test began.

Master Thompson called us up to the card table on Master Park's command. Since Master Parks came directly from Korea, he spoke no English and thus, Master Thompson would be translating for us. Parks began a Korean soliloquy with force that seemed to doubt us from the very beginning. He told us what it takes to become a black belt: high moral character, physical fitness, and discipline. He made it clear that the test would be neither easy nor simple. Then he made us one final offer, "You have paid 300 dollars to take this test. If you fail you will lose your payment and the chance to be promoted." Master Thompson translated, " You can leave now and lose nothing or continue on and risk everything. The choice is yours." I was taken aback, especially since I had earned half of the testing fee by babysitting for most of the year. However, it seemed as though there were no other choice except to accept the consequences after Scott and Kevin did. My stomach churned and a horrible taste swelled into my mouth. He grunted and, like soldiers following a general, we ran back to our places on the mat.

From then on, the test was conducted solely in Korean, and we had to use our basic knowledge of the language to lead us through the exam. Master Parks stood up and we bowed in unison. As I lowered my head to the ground, the smell of the plastic mats wafted up to my nose. The funny, play-dough smell seemed to contradict the looming serious mood. Our first task was to complete 100 push-ups and 200 sit-ups. I tasted the bitter saltiness of sweat as it ran down my forehead and into my mouth. When I was done my muscles ached so badly I wondered if I could go on. The feeling was fueled when Thompson remarked that this was only a warm-up.

Kicking is the most important part of Taekwondo since one powerful kick can bring an enemy to his knees. We preformed every move from the basic front kick to the respected palchu kick. In palchu, one jumps into the air, performs a 360-degree spin and kicks before landing. Once we had completed the kicking drills, Master Parks told everyone to sit down. (except for me.) All eyes were on me; this was my chance to shine. He told me to do eight of the basic forms. I thought it was going to be a synch, until he added the catch: do them blindfolded. Master Thompson blindfolded me with a black bandana and said to begin when I was ready. Once I gained my composure, I started with the toughest form I knew, yelling "Kiiiyaaah!" as loud and powerfully as I could. I was determined to make an impression. When I was finished the forms, I removed the bandana and looked dismally at my surroundings. On the last form, I had turned slightly in the wrong direction and, in my blindness, ended the form backwards. I turned toward Master Parks and saw him fiercely writing notes on his scoring sheet. I lowered my eyes to the floor and felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. Surely, he was not praising me.

I watched Scott and Kevin complete their eight forms. They seemed flawless compared to me. Then Master Thompson told each of us to put on our sparring gear. I rushed over to my bag and put on my various guards and padding. I had Scott tie up my chest protector, and then I secured my helmet. Once we were suited up, Scott and I rushed to the center mat. We were scheduled to fight first. I faced my opponent with fire in my eyes. I could not let him humiliate me; I would defeat him. We bowed to each other, then the instructors, and put up our guards. "Sheeshak!" Master Thompson gave the command to begin. Almost before the command was given, I let out a piercing battle cry. Scott hesitated and I let out a powerful kick to his right helmet. He quickly countered with a spin kick and made contact with my chest guard. The fight continued on and I seemed to be winning. I got so preoccupied with my success that I let my guard down. The next thing I knew I was on the ground. Scott had kicked me in the face with a back sidekick; I hadn't even seen it coming. Thompson quickly stopped the fight. I had ten seconds to recover or loose the match. My left eye was throbbing and tears spewed down my cheeks. Only later would a big black circle form around my eye but for now, I had to get up and fight. At the two-second mark I wobbly stood to face Scott. The fight restarted and I pounded him with a shower of punches and kicks. Power that I never knew I had showed itself in that fight. At the end of the five-minute round, I was declared the winner. Winning never felt so good.

The last trial of my test was to break a three-inch concrete brick. I had never even tried such a task - the most I had ever done before was four wooden boards. When it was my turn, I kneeled in front of the brick and focused as hard as I could. I pictured any barrier or roadblock in my life on the bottom side of that brick. I stood up and got into ready position. Taking a few deep breaths, I took a couple of practice swings to measure exactly where my hand should hit the concrete. Silence settled in the room as the spectators watched intently. I raised my hand to my head, rose slightly on my toes and let out all of my emotions through one last intense yell. My open palm smashed through the brick and shattered it to pieces. I had just broken through anything that had ever tried to stop me in life. I had also just passed the test.

* * *

It was late in the afternoon as Scott, Kevin and I stood in front of the cardboard table to receive certificates for passing the test. My score for the physical part of the test was 91% but I got a 74% on the essay I had written a few weeks before. My score averaged out to an 82%, which was two percent above the passing requirement. Now that I have been a black belt for nearly three years, I look back on my test and realize that it was more then just an assessment of my skills. It taught me to trust in my ability, to have determination, and to set goals for myself. You also need endurance, courage, and discipline to be strong and succeed in life. This proves the saying that is famous among martial artists, "Martial Arts is for the mind, body and soul."
* A dojang is a Korean martial arts
studio