Grumpy about tae kwon do

I just signed us up for the monthly family plan at J.K. Lee, a popular local tae kwon do studio. I’m still not sure it’s a good idea, but Nick, Jesse and I are going to look so gooood in the cool uniforms. Anthony is ambivalent about the whole thing, but I might sway him yet.

I’ve been thinking about doing this for a couple years now. Jesse has interchangeably expressed interest and terror at the idea. She’s worried about all the discipline; she imagines instructors yelling at kids all the time and has trouble seeing past that to all the fun. Last year, when I used to pick her up after school and then drive over to get Nick from preschool, we would go right past the studio. Once in a while, if she was talking about tae kwon do again, I’d suggest we just drop in and take a look. This invariably produced a panic attack and ended the subject.

But now Nick’s five, and my goodness does my little free spirit need an interest other than dinosaurs, dragons and angry birds. He’s ready for an organized activity. The universe came together for me when Jesse decided she wants to be on the swim club at our gym and also take diving lessons. The timing is perfect. While she’s doing that, I can take Nick to a kids-only beginner tae kwon do class and still get back to Jesse before she’s done swimming. When I was working all this out, she insisted she didn’t want to do the marshal art, so it’s a win-win. No one has to sit around waiting for anyone else. (Except me, of course, I’ll be waiting around, but I’m not relevant.)

So we went to J.K. Lee Friday afternoon for a meet/greet and introduction to how they do things. Here’s a blow-by-blow of how it went, real time in my mind as I type:

We’re making the visit for Nick, but Jesse has to tag along because her school lets out before our appointment at J.K. Lee. All she has to do is sit in a corner of the studio and wait peacefully while Nick and I take care of business. But I’ve also just learned from googling about on my iPhone that the monthly fee covers everyone in our family, so I’ll be able to learn tae kwon do along with Nick. Yay! And if Jesse changes her mind and wants to participate, a lot or a little, she can. There are many class times, and you can go to as many as you want. She spends the 5-minute drive to the studio whining about whether she wants to do it or not. I tell her she’s banned.

We walk into J.K. Lee. It smells and looks clean. This is really important for OCD Jesse and (though I have trouble admitting it) OCD Carla. We’re greeted by one of the most enormous human beings I’ve ever met. If I stretch my arm straight up, I’m not sure I’ll reach his nose. He towers over us in his black-belted dobok and he’s huge and his hair is big and his voice booms. He welcomes us enthusiastically and tells us to take off our shoes. Jesse is startled but thoroughly unintimidated by this intimidating instructor. “Why do I have to take off my shoes? I’m not doing it.”

Enormous Man smiles and booms cheerily. “THAT’S FINE, BUT YOU STILL HAVE TO TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES. WE DON’T WEAR SHOES IN HERE. THEY’RE DIRTY!” Jesse stares at him suspiciously and shakes her head as she walks away. 

He shows us where to put our shoes and then directs us to a little training room next to the main studio floor. Nick starts running around and around the room like a wind-up toy, a mix of simple joy and nervous energy. Something new! Something new! Something new! Jesse mewls unhappily, disregarding all efforts by Enormous Man to encourage her. The Korean half of me cringes in humiliation and my face turns pink. I can feel the shades of my ancestors glaring at me in shame as my off-spring show utter contempt and disrespect for the instructor. I feel an unnatural compulsion to bow deeply and issue humble apologies in Korean to sah-buh-neem on behalf of my unruly and horrible children.

But Enormous Man, with his red hair and white skin, probably won’t understand a word I say in Korean. I hold my tongue and remind myself that I live in Wisconsin. I settle instead on snapping at Jesse to go sit somewhere. Far away from me. Where she won’t disrupt Nick’s experience. Since she isn’t going to do this activity anyway. 

We meet the instructor who is going to give us a little demo. Thankfully, she is normal-size. Indeed, she’s quite short, so that makes me feel more at ease. By now Jesse has decided that, although she won’t be doing tae kwon do, she’ll participate in this little intro. Wonderful. I’m so thrilled that she’ll continue to annoy me for the next 20 minutes. 

We stretch, we strike some poses, we learn to yell. Teacher explains that we yell to have energy and focus. She adds an afterthought. If someone’s attacking you or bullying you, and you need to defend yourself, you need to be LOUD. I like this attitude. 

Jesse mutters, “I can’t do that.” 

Teacher adjusts. “Then you can just breath HARD when you punch.” I’m liking this place more and more. Eventually Jesse yells anyway. Ha-yah! We yell as we punch the air. Then we’re taught to yell “Peel-son!” which Teacher says means “I can do it!” 

I don’t think so. That’s not a literal translation. Whatever “peel-son” means (and there’s no telling from the accent what it actually should sound like), it’s not a sentence in Korean. I let it go. Teacher is blond.

We sit down on the mat. Teacher is super up-beat and positive. She lectures the kids about showing kindness and helping. “What do you do at home to help your mom?”

My children stare blankly at each, then slowly look back at Teacher. 

Nick is hesitant, but he tries first. “Don’t yell at mommy?”

Jesse goes next. “I let Nick harass me.”

Teacher, apparently an optimist, tries to find something they can brag about. “Don’t you put your dirty clothes in the laundry when you change?”

“Yes!” yells Nick.

Jesse is more precise, more critical of herself as usual. “Yes… Well, not always. Sometimes not.”

Teacher doesn’t give up. “Do you clear your plates at meals?”

“Yes!” claims Nick, smiling hugely as he tells this big fat lie.

“Well sometimes,” says Jesse. She thinks for a second and then sounds matter-of-fact as she adds, “Actually, mom is our servant at meals.”

With raised eyebrows, Teacher leaves kindness in the dust and moves on to following instructions. She tells us we have to say “yes ma’am” and “yes sir” when the instructors tell us to do something. “How many times does your mom have to ask you to do something before you do it?”

Nick starts guffawing. “Like… One HUNDRED!!!” Inexplicably, he bends over into a butt-up fetal ball as he laughs, knees tucked in and head under his arms.

Jesse nods in agreement. “Yeah.” 

Teacher continues. “How many times should your mom have to ask?”

Nick sits up and gives the correct answer. “Just one?”

Jesse considers the question and then answers in a contemplative tone. “One? Well, two. Maybe two times.”

We get a brief demo of some skills we’ll practice in classes. We throw punches at the air and then at a clapper thingy. It turns out Jesse is a beast. Her punches pack a wallop that surprises Teacher. I don’t explain that this is because Jesse has been punching Anthony and me viciously since her nervous system was just barely developed enough for her to control her arms and hands. Nick is still too sweet to punch very hard. He laughs and tosses his fists about, but his heart’s not really in it.

We learn a high blocking move to protect the head from a downward blow. Teacher gets out a soft bat-like device. She swings it gently down toward the kids’ heads so they can practice the high block. Jesse stands her ground fiercely and blocks well, adding her own move to deflect the bat to the side. When Teacher takes her first shot at Nick, he squeaks as he turns and runs for his life. She gets him back and he gamely tries the high block, but mostly he just squinches his eyes and cowers. 

Now the kids get to use the bat to try to hit Teacher. Jesse goes first. She’s a polite child, so she gently drops it towards Teacher’s head a few times, and she disregards instructions to go ahead and try harder. She really doesn’t want to hurt the nice teacher. Then Nick gets the bat. Time for some payback. He can’t believe he’s being allowed to smack a grownup on the head with a bat, and he really wants to land a blow. He tries to brain Teacher, driving the bat up and down viciously with both arms as he laughs insanely. 

We practice a few other moves. In between skills, Nick runs at high speed around and around the room, like a dog who has the zoomies after a bath. Nick is seriously happy and excited about all this. He’s not bothered that he’s not really following instructions. Teacher isn’t bothered by all his energy. She has plenty of experience with out-of-control kids, because they tend to self-select (or more accurately, parent-select) into tae kwon do so they can gain some discipline.

On a whole other plane of existence from Nick, Jesse struggles with her anxiety as she goes through the drills. She’s worried about Nick being naughty. She’s worried she’s not doing things right. She whimpers, mutters, barely hangs on. But I can see her interest and desire growing. Eventually Jesse settles in, but only after she raises her hand to ask an important question. “Will we die?”

This unexpected inquiry stumps Teacher, who just stares at Jesse silently for an inappropriate length of time. Jesse sees it’s not getting through so she clarifies. “When we do classes, will we die or get badly hurt?” Many soothing words ensue. I’m actually really pleased with the instructor’s answer. She’s plain-spoken, not false in her encouragement. She tells Jesse no one even gets to touch each other for a long time. She reminds Jesse that the motivation of all this is self-defense and confidence, not hurting each other. I’m in. 

Finally we each get to break a board. The board for the kids is a thin piece of pine or balsa, curved a bit. I could break it easily over a knee or with a foot, and I can see Teacher holds it with pressure the right way to make the breaking easy. The kids have to use a hammer punch, a downward blow with the soft pinky side of the fist. Nick is too afraid to do it so Jesse steps in. She strikes with a ferocity that takes us all by surprise. The instructor nearly drops the board and it’s broken into three pieces. Even so, Nick struggles to convince himself he can do it without hurting himself. He does things like touch the board ever so gently with his fist and then closely inspect his hand for splinters. After almost 5 minutes and a dozen failed attempts he finally strikes hard enough and his board breaks. He’s ecstatic and relieved. He cannot believe it.

Teacher says it’s my turn now but she wants me to use a different blow, a forward punch with the palm of my open, flexed hand. She shows me how to do it. Uh, okay. She wanders off to get a bigger board. Unexpectedly, I feel a little nervous. In a didactic vein, I tell Jesse. I’m feeling a little anxious about this, Jesse. What should I do?

This is at the heart of what we work on daily for her, the alternative to anxiety medication — developing and practice coping mechanisms to deal with anxiety whenever it simmers up. Deep calming breaths, body relaxation techniques, self-reassurances that nothing bad will happen, acceptance that failure is okay, doing-not-thinking, and so on. Now that we’re here in a place that she’s feared for 2 years, I’m really curious what tactics she’ll suggest for calming nerves.

“Just think of all the things you hate most about Nick and me and then when you’re really angry just HIT the board as hard as you can.” 

Teacher comes back with a thicker, larger board for me. I nail it on the first blow.


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