Even though they gave him the smallest size, we could probably fit an entire other child in Zachary’s karate uniform. He is petite for a four-year-old. So, we roll the bottoms, we roll the tops, and the sensei wraps that belt around his waist several times, pulling in all the extra fabric on his jacket. But, despite his stature, for a half-hour on Mondays, Zachary walks taller than I have ever seen him before.
The first two lessons, he felt awkward, unsure of how to relate to a male teacher and insecure about using his body this way. The words were uncomfortable for him. As a result, he was disrespectful and silly. It was frustrating for me, because we had paid in advance; it was frustrating for his sensei; and it was frustrating for Zach, who wanted to be good but was protecting himself by intentionally mispronouncing the words.
When you have a highly sensitive child, you get used to worrying about social situations and new experiences. You cannot protect that child, so you are grateful for every talented teacher who comes down the pike. Zachary has been fortunate to have had gifted preschool teachers, both in London and here in Los Angeles.
And he has one again in Sensei Kirk. He is the right blend of humor and business, allowing Zach to be silly but keeping him serious about learning. Martial arts studios are denizens of earnest geeks, men and women who take pride in their sport and the rituals that surround it. Our dojo is no exception. It is a world unto itself, and, while karate may have little social capital in the larger world, those who have immersed themselves in this life are cool within their own microcosm.
It is all one could ask for one’s child.
The focus is learning respect. Respect for the teacher, respect for the art, and respect for one’s ability and body. Hard work and obedience are rewarded. And all Zach wants is the reward of his sensei’s opprobrium. As soon as he starts to slip, Sensei Kirk brings him back, reminding him that he will not get a little plastic ninja if he does not take his lesson seriously. And the child wants that ninja.
On Wednesdays, we go to group lessons, and Zach refuses to participate. He is shy and nervous about this strange group of kids, and Sensei Sam is slowly moving him into the room. But, on Mondays, Zach is focused as he practices half-moons and blocks. He remembers everything from the previous lesson and tries hard to learn what Sensei Kirk is teaching.
At the end of every lesson, Zach kneels again with his sensei. His body looks so small and serious bent over there on the floor. But what he is learning will make his back straighter.