When our son Bud was four years old, he started going to taekwondo classes, held in a do jang (gym, or studio) located in a street corner shopping mall across the street from his pre-school. It might have turned out to be nothing important in Bud’s life. His pre-school headmaster made deals with all kinds of fellow education merchants to trade off services, and a whole troop of the Montessori pre-Ks and Ks used to march over to Chun’s Black Belt Academy once a week for what amounted to little more than a gym class.
But Master Vincent Chun was anything but ordinary. As a mother of one black belted teenager told me, “We’ve been coming here eight years, and he’s never phoned it in. Never. It’s always been wonderful.”
From the very first class, Bud and his mates stood at attention, yelled, “Yes, sir!” to every instruction, ran to obey, and worked their little behinds off. Affecting a stern demeanor — but meaning every word — Master Chun taught an infinitely varying routine of stretches and strength exercises and a graduated series of kicks, blocks, punches, stances, and postures. From the start, he knew every child’s name, and never forgot one, this in a school that included more than 150 children and adults. He knew that little children see as in a mirror, so when he directed them to their right, he always demonstrated with his own left, and vice versa.
Master Chun’s bark entirely sufficed. He did not bite at all, and everybody knew it. “You not trying!” he might warn one of his young charges. “Fifty pushup!” Uh-huh.
When we moved from New Jersey to Massachusetts last year, Bud had worked his way up to what Master Chun called a “high blue belt.” (The belts start at white and move up in six colors to black, with gradations at every level. Blue is the fourth.) Within a few months, we found a new taekwondo school, Y.K. Kim’s Taekwondo Institute, in a converted barn of a church in Lawrence, the depressed mill town next over from North Andover, where we live.
Grandmaster Kim, who interviewed us, was an imposing figure in his fifties, awesomely fit. He had taught the Korean Coast Guard and Navy, and had coached the first U.S. squad in its trip to the Seoul Olympics, where taekwondo was introduced as a demonstration sport. He read Bud’s blue belt certificate from Master Chun (written in Korean, of course) and pronounced Bud accomplished to the same standard in his own school. Bud got a new uniform, a new belt, and started again.
Grandmaster Kim taught only black belt classes, though his office faced the exercise floor and he watched every move. Master Hong, a slender man in his twenties, taught the daily classes for (mostly) children. After Master Hong, Bud will have no trouble understanding an Army drill sergeant. Master Hong sings out his commands in an impenetrable patois and a carrying tenor; I am never quite sure whether he’s speaking Korean or English. Unlike Master Chun, Master Hong is playful, setting his children to athletic contests against one another, laughing with them, and demonstrating his formidable abilities.
Indeed, athleticism gets displayed at an astonishingly high level at the do jang. For some weeks last winter, three Korean college students, essentially majoring in taekwondo, visited to help instruct. The two boys and Master Hong could do flying side kicks eight feet up a heavy bag, flip over, still aloft, and kick the bag twice more before returning to earth. It looked like they were walking sideways up the air. Emily, a 14-year-old black belt who is one of my pals, can do a cartwheel and break a board with her heel while fully extended upside down. Bud can perform a full 180-degree split, then bend and touch his head to his knees on either side.
Semi-annual testing draws the whole school together for an hours-long session with perhaps sixty students, adults and children, going through routines, breaking boards and cement blocks, and being interviewed by a panel of teachers, chaired by Grandmaster Kim. It’s rough on the younger kids, who have to sit still for a long time on the floor, watching the higher belts finish their tasks. Here again, Master Hong’s playful nature helps out. At the last test, for Emily’s climactic high vaulting kick, Master Hong (unobserved by anyone) covered the top of the board with candy bars, which scattered in a glorious shower when Emily splintered the plank.
At that session, Grandmaster Kim, addressing David, a skinny, scholarly-looking man of about 45, one of the top red belts, said, “Now, I challenge you. Can you break three boards?” The boards are half-inch pine planks. Breaking one is easy. Add another, and it starts to get tough. Three definitely constitutes a challenge.
David broke the first two stacks, one with a punch, one with a kick, on his first tries. But the final kick, an axe kick, requires raising the leg straight over the head, then bringing it down hard and striking the blow with the heel. He failed the first two tries, bounced away with a wince and a limp, and steeled himself for the third. The great hall fell completely silent. When David split the three boards with his third try, the room erupted in cheers and applause.
We were all with him, you see, just as we had been with every student, from the tiniest five-year-old yellow belt on up.
David was bleeding, but with a big grin on his face. He was now a black belt. He can properly regard that as a lifetime achievement. As will Bud, who saw David go through every trial, and come out on top.
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