The Black Belt Test

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“You must be nervous,” Sensei Meade grinned wittingly at me. The lustrous shine of his bald head under the fluorescent lights momentarily captivated my attention. Casting my gaze downwards, I felt my feet sticking to the newly varnished wood floor. Starched, bleached karate gis snapped with meticulously polished precision as human perspiration flew from the souls inside them.

It was 6:32 p.m. at the U.S. Chito Kai Hombu Dojo located in the heart of the run down slums of Covington, Kentucky, approximately three blocks away from a White Castle and never more than a block away from a drug deal. On this particularly chilly night in October, back in the days when it actually got cold in the fall, the organization was about to hold it’s National Dan Ranks Test, or in more understandable terms: a rigorous examination in which one’s physical fortitude, mental acuity, and technical proficiency would be put through the paces and scrutinized under the hawk-eyed vigilance of “The Test Board,” an infamous aggregation of white-haired karate Senseis with no other intention than that of finding fault in the unshrinking individuals, I being one of them; an endeavor not unlike that of applying to college. No, I was not nervous.

Scanning the room, I observed the growing number of spectators that seemed to line the room like bulky, Japanese wallpaper. Just as suddenly as the floor of the dojo began to resemble a spill of Whiteout, the mass of humanity parted like the Red Sea, as if Moses himself had beat his staff, and, almost as sacredly, the fabled Test Board began to walk through the room. As I watched them settle into their seats, I came to the abrupt realization that this is the real deal. No, I didn’t think I was nervous.

Now, it’s not every day one tests for their first-degree black belt in such a stringent and rather intimidating manner. Many kids younger than myself sign up for “promotions” at their respective karate “factories,” where the trophies are taller than the teachers and the number of eight year old black belts romping around nearly outnumbers the plethora of gold medals hanging ornately on the walls. However, having anticipated this for practically a year, I had never felt such butterflies tumultuously bounding around in my stomach as I was feeling now.

The course of events of the next hour seemed to blur together as the ranks below me tested for their next levels. As the sand in my prospective hourglass began to run out, my fellow karate-ka and I bowed in and began to show off our prowess as the moderator called out a myriad of techniques in Americanized Japanese at a breakneck pace. Allowing my consciousness to leave and all thoughts to cease for the ephemeral moments spent on the dojo floor in which I was consumed by the wholeness that my art calls for, I realized after what seemed to be just moments ago that my test had began, it was now over.

My back soaked with the sweet sweat of stamina and my forehead shining with the dew of accomplishment, The Test Board gathered around to shower us with words of constructive criticism. The audible inhalation of people’s gasps sounded as the 5 foot tall Sensei who flew in all the way from Okinawa to be on The Test Board teetered to the front of the table and startlingly looked directly into my eyes with a fierce intensity I’ve never since experienced.

“You. Good Spirit. Keep training.” My face flushed with delight and an undeniable feeling of gratification, as I stumbled in gratitude towards Sensei Akutagawa.

No, I was not nervous anymore.





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