Sunday, October 16, 2016

Welcome to the Imperfect Club

Editor's note: The following is a letter I wrote to a student who didn't pass a promotion exam. He's now a member of a club no one wants to be a part of, but in which at some point in life we all receive an induction.
Dear X,
I know how you felt on Saturday. I know how much you wanted to pass the exam—to receive your belt with your peers. It didn't turn out that way, and that reality stings. I’ve been where you were this weekend, and there's no flowery way to say it: It hurts.

When I flunked my first attempt at black belt, I did so in front of a roomful of teachers and peers. It was embarrassing. I was heartbroken. I failed to break a cement block as my last assignment.
My spaghetti legs wobbled; I was exhausted. My bottom lip quivered. My nose burned. I hadn’t hurt my hand in the break attempt, but my pride was noticeably shattered. I was crying so hard that snot dripped down my all-white Taekwondo uniform. I felt flattened like a pancake emotionally and physically. I hung my head to hide the tears.
The crowd applauded and whistled as my peers and I stood in line at attention, but I was so disheartened; I couldn't hold in my tears. I tried to clamp off the emotional faucet because I knew it wouldn't look good to cry during the oral part of a black belt exam, but it was too late; the flood had started.
"O.K., Cah-ty," Grandmaster Yoon said from the examiners’ table, "tell me about improvements you made since you started training in Taekwondo.
I paused, looked down at the mat, and tried to gather my composure as snot slowly dribbled onto one of my uniform's patches. I had to give my answer, even if everyone knew I was crying.
"Sir," I said slowly with a shaky voice, "I've learned that whenever I fail, not to quit—to keep trying. Perseverance. Integrity. Courtesy. Self-confidence. Self-control. Indomitable spirit, sir!" 

I cried even harder as I again hung my head. There was a long silence before Grandmaster Yoon spoke in imperfect English.

"You know, mos’ student fail on first-degree black belt test. Not only you. You ah not just the idiot." 

I stopped crying. Did he just call me an idiot?

He did! Because of the language barrier, he didn't mean it that way, but he did! It was so startling that I stopped crying.

The tears slowed for a moment, but I still just wanted to get away from everyone. It hurt so much to have failed—but to also have failed in public. I was in so much pain. 

So, if you can related to anything I described above, then welcome to the Imperfect Club. I hate being a member of this group, because I want to be perfect. Every time. The first time. Alas, I’m not.
But I’ve learned a LOT from being a member of the Imperfect Club. As an instructor, I’ve been able to show compassion when students don’t pass tests—to relate to them in a powerful way that I simply couldn’t have without having gone through this myself. I learned that messing up isn’t the end of the world, and that if I can find a lesson in it all, it helps the pain subside a little quicker, and later (much later) I find the experience useful. This particular experience made me so much more compassionate toward others—and myself—when imperfection raises its ugly head.
So I encourage—challenge—you to join me in the next phase of this oftentimes hard rite of passage, one in which I’M STILL working on celebrating my strengths, accepting my weaknesses and imperfections without harsh judgment, and enjoying the journey of discovering what I’m good at, what I’m not, and deciding whether I want to work harder to improve the latter.

Days like Saturday may make you think that you haven’t moved an inch. This is not true. You have grown a great deal since first bowing onto the Taekwondo mat. And we need mentors who will remind us of this—who will tell us the truth of how far we’ve come, especially during the low times.

So here I am, reminding you that you’re a fine young man with an incredible, kind spirit, and that Taekwondo needs men like you to act as warriors of goodwill—to defend the meek, to tell those who come after us that we've been there and we know how they feel.
Regardless, I make you the following promise: I’LL BELIEVE IN YOU UNTIL YOU CAN BELIEVE IN YOURSELF.
Much love,
Miss Cathy