The instructor stood in front of the class. “Today,” he said, “Only brown belts and black belts will break boards.”
The previous week, he had asked the class for a show of interest. My hand shot up: I had always wanted to break a board.
I had been offered the opportunity only once, several years ago. It had happened during a bad week. Two days before that class, an ice-climbing friend of mine had died in an avalanche in Alaska. I had attended the funeral the day before.
That first opportunity, I felt shaky. From the front of the room, the then-Sensei seemed to eye me, as if expecting me to give the board-breaking a try. Feeling that I didn’t have the necessary focus for the task, I chose not to. Afterward, when I mentioned my dilemma to Sensei’s wife, she agreed with my decision. “Times like this,” she said, “karate should take care of you.”
Now, another opportunity presented itself. The instructor greeted me personally at the entrance of the dojo and asked to speak with me. “I’m worried,” he said. “About your reverse punch. I’m not sure you’ll be able to break a board.”
My mouth opened.
“You should use a kick,” he said. “That will work better.”
I thanked him and turned away.
Oh, how I wanted to stomp. Vast were the realms of self-pity. Also: internal grumbling and sulking. How was it possible that my punch wasn’t good enough?
Could it be that the instructor was off the mark? I’m tiny, I thought to myself. One of my punches probably looks more like a hole puncher trying to poke through paper than the heavy-weight, gong-like slams of the gargantuan men. No doubt, the instructor is not able to envision the tremendous power of my awesome punch.
I wanted to cry.
There was something else. I’d often thought about board breaking, and I’d always thought I’d do it with a reverse punch. Since the ability to break boards depends, by and large, on what is happening in the student’s head, I wanted to break this board using the technique I’d always visualized. I didn’t want to imagine a different technique. In my various daydreams, I had been sure of my success, and I wanted to capitalize on my imaginings.
I thought of my good friend and career counsellor, Ayelet, who likes to tell me to find opportunity in every difficult situation. Perfect, I thought. This is good. This is great. What an opportunity for humility! And for learning. Let’s not forget learning.
I left to seek out an experienced master. Pulling aside a senior student, I explained the situation. I sniffled and tried to look calm and not like I was begging him for reassurance. I channelled my inner Anne Lamott.
He looked at me with great compassion. He explained that each instructor has his or her own focus. This instructor focuses on strength, he said. In the end, I had to use my own judgement. “Don’t take it personally,” he said.
I restrained myself from hugging this kind man.
I marched back into class. I was going to break a board. With a reverse punch.
The rest of the class gathered. My daughter sat on the floor with the other children. I didn’t dare look at her. I needed all my powers of concentration. Oh goodness, I thought. Here is where I let my daughter down. Disappointment and years of therapy will follow. For both of us.
One by one, senior belts broke boards. Boards shattered, not with a splintering crack, but rather with a dry “pock” sound. All of the students used a reverse punch. One woman kicked a board, failed, and then broke it with a punch.
My turn came. I punched my board. Once. Twice. Nothing happened. I kicked it. Still nothing. I turned and sat back on the floor. I crossed my legs and didn’t look at anyone. I didn’t weep. If anything, I felt my determination harden.
Another person went up and punched the board. The board did not break. Even from where we were sitting we could see that her fingers were raw and bloody from raking the wood. (I’m sure that it would never occur to any of you to hope that she not break the board on her next try.) She tried again. The board broke.
“Anyone else?” the instructor asked.
My voice seemed to come from somewhere else. “Can I try again?”
“Sure.” The instructor held the board, and I pushed against it a few times, testing my form. “Don’t let me push against you,” he said.
The following thought crossed my mind: I don’t care if I break my hand, I’m going to break this *#$*#*$*# board.
I punched. “Pock.” The board broke.
My daughter beamed.
Turns out I wasn’t grounding my back foot enough when I punched. This is very instructive. Crucial, when you think about it. What if I were attacked in the street, and I didn’t ground my foot in enough?
And it became an opportunity to talk to my daughter about perseverance. “You see?” I said. “I didn’t succeed the first few times. Only on the fourth.”
Of course, I’ve caught myself miscounting the number of times I failed to break that plank. In some stories I’ve said three; in others, two. And I’m going to frame the two wood pieces. I took these home, of course.
After all, it’s not every day that a person breaks a board.