Carlos is a ten-year-old, soft-spoken orange belt with a full head of thick, black hair. He is quietly yet quickly working his way up the belt ranks. I smile every time he bows onto the mat because he’s a good kid and a hard worker.
His mother came up to me after class yesterday.
“I need to tell you something,” she began. This usually is the beginning of a conversation involving character unbecoming one of my students—but not always.
“I wanted you to know that he’s been doing really well in school. As and Bs on his report card. He even helped this boy with his math homework every day after class because his classmate was struggling. He won’t tell you. He doesn’t want to make a big deal about it.”
Carlos was sitting on the linoleum floor in the corner of the room, putting on his sneakers. I curled up my finger, motioning for him to come over.
“You’re mom told me what you did—helping your classmate.”
“Good job! I’m proud of you.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” he humbly replied.
“What I’m most proud of is that you practiced Basic Rules to Live By No. 10—“We must respect our teachers and peers”—without me challenging you to do so. You helped someone who needed help. No one told you you’d get a stripe for it. You could have told your classmate, ‘Too bad, so sad. Good luck with your homework, buddy.’ But you didn’t.
“Plus, you helped another with no expectation of reward. A lot of people will do things for others, but they typically expect something in return. You did it just to help someone. And that’s what all this kicking and punching is really all about: becoming stronger in mind, body, and spirit, and then helping others become stronger too.
“You’re the kind of black belt I like to promote.”
Carlos smiled shyly and humbly bowed.
I spend thousands of hours helping students perfect blocks, strikes, kicks, rolls, and falls, and an assortment of self-defense strategies. That’s what I do, and I’m fairly good at it. I’m mindful, however, to spend equal time mentoring these same students to develop humility, selflessness, and compassion. If I don’t, then I've cheated them out of the opportunity to practice big-picture martial arts. It may sound strange, but I’m not proudest when I see one of my students perform a flying side kick over six people. A flying side kick is hugely popular in demonstrations creates a great wow factor. But it won't change the world. Selfless acts of kindness and compassion—and a deep well of patience—will.
Carlos wants a black belt, that’s obvious. And if he sticks with Taekwondo, I'll one day wrap a piece of black cloth around his waist. But he will not only have a black belt. More important, he will be one.