Sweat was still trickling down my face as I gulped down half a liter of bottled water. I didn’t think it was possible for a person to take that much water even after consuming two bottles of electrolyte replenishing drinks, and still be thirsty. The sun was at its peak and we were walking by the roadside searching for a place to have lunch. My body was still sore from the beating I endured during the previous night’s practice, some parts were already numb after I took the shodan exam earlier this day. My heart was still beating fast, my chest still felt painful trying to catch my breath, I never felt so tired before. I was drained, beat up, numb and sore all over, but deep inside I was feeling good. With the exam over, the hard part is waiting for the results, accepting the result itself a lot harder.
I spent the afternoon resting, my whole body was begging for sleep even for just a few minutes. But the anxiety prevented me from relaxing, I could close my eyes but my mind was so active. This case we usually describe as “over practice” especially if we were undergoing intense training or having a lot of fun in the dojo, when we get home we can barely get some sleep. The eyes may be closed but the mind is constantly alert, I wondered if it was the high level of practice we went through or the amount of bottomless iced tea we had afterwards. My beeping clock woke me up from the short nap, I could feel the tension in my muscles as I got up from my bed. Pausing for a moment, I gathered my thoughts on what happened and looked forward to what I will be going through. The neatly folded gi on my table was waiting to be placed inside my bag, my worn out white belt and the tanto resting on the side. I picked up the tanto, it was given to me by one of my seniors after my first take, he told me to practice with it and I did. At one point everybody was telling me to try again, practice harder, better luck next time and give it another shot. After failing twice I had my reservations but I still went ahead and took the exam, tonight I will find out if it was all worth going through over and over again.
When I arrived at the dojo only a few people were there, as always we greet each other with slight bows, nods and grins. The place was still dimly lit, the white mat gleamed as the fluorescent light shone upon it. In the dressing room people slowly started to come in, congratulating each other on their exam performances, others asking how their exams went but everybody was anxious on how the results would turn out. On our way out, more people come in and greet us, the cheerful atmosphere gave me a little peace. The last night of the seminar is always the happiest moment (except for those bound to fail), laughter in the air, cameras flashing, wacky poses and adults experiencing a second childhood. As the seminar begins everybody retains their high spirits, techniques are more relaxing, movements more free flowing and corrections barely felt. The head instructor calls the practice to end and for the last set of examinations to begin, for those who still wish to take they are given this time.
Only a handful of students were left to take the exam, we sat on the sidelines and watched them. Lucky for us, we took the exam earlier, not too many people were around, not much pressure. After all the examinees were finished, there was still ample time for the instructors to give corrections and allowed the students to practice what they pointed out. By then not everybody was intent on practicing, most were eager to hear the results of their exams, the body moves but the mind floats. Finally the head instructor declares the end of the practice. Now for the results.
We were seated at the right side of the mat facing the shomen, beside me was my uke earlier this morning, he still arrived late but was in his usual optimistic self. He was nervous as I am and cannot actually tell if my exam went well, I can understand, most of the time he was flat on the mat receiving my techniques. One by one the names were called, from 5th kyu going to 1st kyu, just as the teachers did years before. I thought this practice was long abandoned after there were numerous students and cannot be called one by one, but this year its back to the old style. Thinking to myself, this would be the way that I want to pass just like the good old days when I started, my throat was getting dry but my laughter never dulled. I sat there waiting and cheering, most of the students are my good friends, and the smiles on their faces and tight handshakes made me feel a lot happier after greeting them congratulations.
Suddenly a hush of silence swept through the dojo, the results for the black belt exams would now be handed out. I watched as the head instructor picked up three application forms from his side. I knew that it was the three who took the shodan exam, two the previous night and me this morning. One of the two other examinees was seated next to me, jokingly I asked him “should we hold hands?” soliciting a grin that was filled with more fear than excitement. The other examinee was a little to my left, I called his name and gestured “three application forms.” The silence was broken by the head instructors voice, “for the black belt exam, only one passed.”
I felt my heart break there, “No, not again,” I couldn’t breathe. All I did was close my eyes and duck my head, expecting the worst. Following a short period of pin drop silence, our head instructor called my name. With the first syllable still on his lips I clenched my fists, with my eyes still closed I slowly stood up. When I opened my eyes, everybody was looking at me, clapping their hands and with huge smiles. I can only return their applause with a front roll with my right thumb and index finger positioned to highlight my face. The cheers and laughter followed, I was now in front of my two examiners, I bowed graciously to them and as I lifted my head they were already extending their hands. On the side they were teasing my girlfriend to come closer so she can take a good picture. After shaking their hands and bowing to them I faced the crowd, “domo arigato gozaimashita!” bowing to the right, center and left. Moving back to my place I could still feel their eyes on me, so I did what normal people would do in this situation, scream “yahoo!” while doing a high fall.
Back in my seat, I hugged my uke thanking him. A lot of pats on my back, extended hands, high five’s and happy faces. Tonight was my night, and I couldn’t have had it any better. I got my attention back to the instructors in front of us, he was giving the traditional speech dedicated to the new black belt/s “this is only the beginning.” I used to be one of the junior students listening to him, now he’s talking to me and looking directly at me. Even though I’ve heard everything before, I was staring straight at him intently listening to every single word he was saying.
For the final time, everybody faces the shomen, eyes closed, smiles all over their faces, “shomen ni rei.” Following the deep bow, everybody claps, screams of victory all over, high spirits, let the celebration begin. A swarm of people rush towards me, my fellow classmates, our Japanese guests, and all the seniors. Extending their congratulations in one way or the other, verbally and physically. I had the biggest smile on my face, we all posed for a group photo, at that moment nothing could wipe off that smile. Our head instructor let me wear his black belt and one of the seniors allowed me to try his hakama on. More pictures, my smile never faded, it was one unforgettable night. I dreamt of this before, the only missing part was that my own teacher wasn’t there, but I know that it was his teaching that brought me to where I am now.
As I was folding my gi, I can’t help but smile, noticing how small it looked, the torn parts and its deteriorating state. Earlier, a Japanese student handed me a brand new gi, it was a gift from a good friend in Japan, who was my uke during the previous years when I didn’t pass. It felt symbolic, new gi, a clean slate, much to learn, more room for improvement. The happiness that I felt, this state of euphoria, kind of erased all the hurt and disappointment of the previous years. Come to think of it, I gained more than I lost. All the effort I placed, and time I invested in practice was not wasted at all. Most importantly I have a better understanding of patience now than ever before. I shared my insights to the two guys who didn’t pass “been there, done that,” I told them, “but I never stopped practicing”. Three years, it was all worth it, for this moment that couldn’t have been any better. I zipped my bag and put my sandals on, everybody already went out for the farewell dinner, the lights were being turned off one by one. By the door stood my two classmates still all smiles, and my girlfriend with her outstretched hand gesturing that it’s time to go. I walked towards them, then turned back to face the dojo, we all bowed in deep gratitude and relief.
The party was great, from “kampai” to “sayonara” the drinks flowed, everybody was having a good time. I just made sure that they won’t pass me the bill when it was time to leave. I got home and fell flat on my bed, “it’s over,” I thought as I said my prayers of thanks. While lying there I was filled with high hopes and a renewed sense of commitment to train more and practice harder. Finally my tired body gets some rest, my greatest reward now was peace of mind. A different kind of pressure sets in, as forewarned by our head instructor in his speech. “Everyone will look at you, on how you practice, how you move and how you are as a person.” Much people to please, more to satisfy, I won’t need to worry about them. As always I will do my best, try until I get it and won’t stop until finally getting it right. Recalling the days events in the silence of my room, I was still smiling, then sleep finally catches up with me. The night gives a promise of a new tomorrow, as it slowly turns into day, dawn arrives as a second chance, a fresh start, and so it begins…