I wake up rubbing my eyes, groggy and irritated by the sound of my alarm. Five more minutes. Then I remember: it’s grading day today. Shit, I slept in. Get up, get up!!
My wife and I both have our pre-black belt grading today. It’s more intense than the black belt grading itself, because we represent our sensei’s dojo there. Since our performance is a reflection of his, and we’ll be compared to students from other dojos, he tends to… uh, let’s say make sure… his students are ready to handle the challenges of the day.
I sit down for a nice relaxing breakfast to start the day. Carbs, a latte, and La Vie en Rose on the radio, while rays of sunlight beam into the living space. Perfection. Or the calm before the storm.
As I shower, I mentally rehearse everything I could be quizzed on at the grading. So much to know, no way I can remember it all. God I hope they ask me something I know. Getting out of the shower, I wonder how to style my hair. Ah who cares, I’m not being judged on that. But it feels like I could be. My nerves are playing tricks on me. Stay focused.
I can’t take it any longer. If I stay in this house any longer I’m going to completely psych myself out. I need a distraction. I pack up my gi and my equipment and head to the dojo to help with the children’s grading. Just what the doctor ordered.
The car ride to the dojo is an emotional one. I’ve got Through the Fire and Flames by Dragonforce on, and it’s got my adrenaline pumped up to an 11 out of 10. Let’s do this. I get to the dojo, and change into my gi. Parents are starting to roll in with their kids for the grading. It’s starting to feel real.
The kids grading is huge – the most kids I’ve ever seen grade all in one place before. Parents line the walls of the dojo in four rows. Standing room only. Helping the kids through the motions does exactly what I hoped it would do: takes my focus completely off my grading by forcing me to focus on theirs. It’s a big grading, and it takes focus and coordination with the other instructors and senior belts to make it run smoothly. In the end it does, and sensei leaves the parents and kids with a few words of encouragement before dismissing everyone.
Oh crap, he dismissed them. That means that we’re next. Oh crap oh crap, I’m not ready!! Ok, get it together. I say hello to my friends and dojomates who are grading with me. We line up.
Everything that happens next feels surreal to me, and it seems like it’s over in the blink of an eye.
We’re blasting out pushups and kihon basics at lightning speed. Hang in there, don’t use up all your energy now. I’m feeling winded by the end of it, no matter what my inner dialogue is.
We’re demonstrating takedowns. My partner and I are both slippery as hell, and I can’t get a grip. How’s that for a double entendre. Get a grip, Jason. We make it through ok.
We’re on bunkai now – the practical applications of our kata. We rehearsed these a ton before the grading, and I’m feeling confident.
Until I finish the first one differently from everyone else around me. Seriously?
Luckily, the next seven go smoothly, and the practice we put in before the grading pays off. Hey, seven outta eight ain’t bad.
I’m standing in the center of the dojo. Being told to spar a white belt. He takes it well, and I take it easy. Then he’s swapped out for another brown belt, a close friend and one of the toughest guys in the dojo. …shit. The first two rounds go by, and I’m trying not to get grabbed and thrown around. The third round I get backed into a corner, and instinct takes over.
What did I just do? With no option left, I break one of the main rules of sparring in our dojo: no head shots. I take a knee while the instructors make sure he’s ok. He’s fine – like I said, he’s tough as nails, and I didn’t hit too hard. Plus I hit him in the forehead, which hurt me more than him. Not the point though. I feel ashamed and exhausted, and want to go sit down. I’m told to stay in the ring while a new brown belt is swapped in. He’s younger, and more apprehensive than my last exchange. I appreciate the change in energy. We trade blows and go on our way.
We’re doing two-on-one defense now. Geeze, I had my hands full with one, how am I going to handle two? First attempt is a complete fail. Grabbed and pinned. Same with the second. Come on Jason, you can do better than that. They say go, and on come the attackers. This time, I’m able to grab one and use him to shield myself from the other. YES, that’s it! Finally.
I’m up in front of everyone doing kata. The first one goes smoothly. So far so good, this isn’t so bad. Same with the second. Oh man, I’m on a roll! This will be a breeze. The third kata, I’m told I need to face backwards and to the side – something like a 31-degree angle, and that I need to finish on that angle too. Wait, what?! We never practiced this! I start off, and things are going ok. I’m doing each move, and seem to be on the right angle.
And then it happens.
I turn the wrong way for one move, and end up completely backwards as a result. Damn it, what now? I step, trying to overdo it to get back on track. No luck, I’m still backwards. I try again. Nothing. Well, might as well just have some fun with this then. In a glorious acknowledgement of my glaring failure, I swing my feet around a full 270 degrees for the next move, a smirk on my face. The other students are laughing. Good! There was no recovering from that, I might as well put on a show while I get back to the right position. A couple more kata, and I’m given the green light to sit back down. That wasn’t so bad.
We’re ending the grading with group kata, and we’re doing one called Sanchin. The conditioning kata, uh oh. Who’s going to be beating the stuffing out of me while I perform it? One of sensei’s most senior students is testing me, and I know I’m in for some pain. Let him come.
I’m hit everywhere from my shoulders, to my legs, to my feet, to my stomach. The whole time, my entire body is tense. I’m moving slowly, but each move is deliberate. If I loosen up for even a second, I’ll be hit so hard I can’t keep going.
WHAM. Keep going.
WHAM. KEEP GOING.
WHAM. KEEP GOING!!!
I somehow make it through, slightly worse for wear but still intact.
Sensei is speaking his closing remarks for the grading. We’ve all passed. Unbelievable. We made it…
I’m waiting for someone to surprise us with a secret second half to the grading. I’ve heard whispers that sometimes things happen behind closed doors. Things meant just for the students preparing for black belt. But we’re told we’re free, and that there really is nothing else. Guess we got lucky.
I’m so glad I booked a restaurant to go to for beers after, because I could really use one right now. Everyone at the dojo is invited, and we end up with about 12 people. This is the part I look forward to most. Students and instructors, all raising a glass together at the end of a successful grading. This comradery, this is what it’s all about.
One of the senior instructors gets up to announce that he’s proud to see us get to where we are today, and would be proud to stand in the same line with us, all as black belts. He has no idea what that means to us. I raise a glass.
Afterward, my friend joins my wife and I at our house for a couple more drinks, except that we’re all too tired to drink. We end up passing out in the living room, completely, gloriously exhausted. How it’s supposed to be.
Wrapping it Up
I wake up today rubbing my eyes, groggy and irritated by the sound of my alarm. My body hurts all over. And then I remember: It’s over. We passed. We’re Mudansha now.
Not a bad way to start the day.