But what really stirred me were those that didn't break their boards on the first try. Those who had to try and try and try while a crowd of parents and already victorious classmates looked on. Those who didn't give up, even though the odds were against them with each try. Those who risked injury with every strike. Those who kept on, despite the pain in their jarred bones and assaulted joints.
Two, in particular, brought tears to my eyes. Not figuratively. I mean, I literally wept as I watched them pour all their courage and determination into downward driving strikes that drove the breath from their lungs.
The first was a young girl; perhaps ten or twelve. She was slight of stature, with a waist like a sapling and hair that rippled like lake water on a starless night. Her wrists were so tender and slender, I thought surely they would snap under the stress as she drove her fist again and again into the unyielding boards. She was granted twenty tries, and with each one, she gave it everything she had. And still those boards would not break or even crack. When the Master finally stopped her, she simply bowed her head respectfully and took her seat. There were no tears or tantrums or piteous pleas for just one more try. She accepted failure with an equanimity I have never seen in a child that age. And she did not look embarassed or ashamed.
The other was a Mom, perhaps my age, with a little extra flesh around her middle and fatigue beneath her eyes. She did her forms with style and grace, and her sparring was full of spirit. But she could not break her boards. She tried again and again with no luck. I could see the physical pain on her face and the personal pain in her eyes as she came to grips with her likely failure. But she did not give up and like the little girl, she put everything she had into every single attempt. Finally, the Master stopped her, and asked her to take a moment, close her eyes and find her center. He asked her to visualize her success, feel the victory in her soul. With everyone watching, she knelt and closed her eyes. She sat silent and calm for several moments, and then she rose, approached her boards, and smashed them to smithereens. Then she sank to the mat, boneless with relief.
I'm not lying when I tell you that I cheered more loudly for her than I had for my own son. She and that little girl MOVED me with their determination; their refusal to give up or give in, even when it seemed that the only possible outcome was failure.
This to me, is what courage is. You keep fighting even when you know you can and probably will fail. You keep fighting for the right to believe in your own strength and courage. You keep fighting because there is no shame in defeat, only in giving up. You fight for the honor of saying, "I gave it everything I had."
I don't think a lot of kids these days have had an opportunity to do that. My son broke all his boards on the first try. It was easy for him; almost effortless. I'm not saying his victory was an empty one, because it wasn't. He worked hard to learn his forms and his terms and his technique for breaking boards. But I think the spectre of failure makes a victory even sweeter. Not many of us these days have had to really FIGHT for anything. They've never had to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and move on, despite crushing disappointment and failure. It builds character. It makes us strong. It makes us hungry.
Those two are stronger today than they were yesterday. I'm not sure the same can be said for everyone who broke their board on the first try.
I'm going to try to look at the challenges before me as unbroken boards from now on. And I'm going to remember the two who wouldn't give up.