by Sarah Skwire
This essay was written as part of the author’s black belt test qualifications
The first time I began my Taekwondo training I was 21 years old. I was in my senior year of college, had an elected position of responsibility in my literary society, was working as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate class, and was writing an honors thesis in English. I was worried that I might start thinking that I knew everything—a common danger among 21 year olds.
So, since I had never been particularly athletically talented, I decided to try studying a martial art. It seemed like it would be mentally and physically challenging, and I was certain it would keep me humble.
After my first class, when it took me nearly 30 minutes to learn to turn around in front stance, I was sure of it. Taekwondo was guaranteed to keep me from thinking that I knew everything. In fact, it assured me that I knew nothing. And I loved it. The physical demands of Taekwondo were a great complement to the intense life of the mind that I experienced at college, and the mental demands meant that I stayed interested all the time. I loved the moments that happened—every now and again—when I could feel the connection between my mind and body becoming stronger and smoother.
All that year, I trained with my college club—testing through green belt with a local Master instructor who had agreed to sponsor us. When I left for graduate school at the University of Chicago, I made a point of finding the campus Taekwondo club as soon as I arrived. I continued to train with them consistently until—right before testing for my red belt—the instructor we worked with went back to Korea.
That interruption in my training coincided with some life changes. I was finishing my PhD, getting married, beginning a teaching career, and then picking up a new career at an educational foundation. I had two children. I lost track of the joy I took in Taekwondo and the benefits I gained from it.
Fast forward, then, to the year I turned 43—the second time I began my Taekwondo training. I had recently gotten divorced. My daughters were 7 and 9. I was working harder than ever, but I wanted to find something that the girls and I could do together as a family. And I wanted that to be something more substantial than “Starbucks with Mom” or “Shopping with Mom.” I wanted them to learn some life lessons about how strong they are, how capable they are, and how they can rise to challenges. I wanted to help them develop the kind of grit that I had needed to help me so often. I wanted my quiet daughter to come out of her shell, and I wanted my madcap daughter to practice focus and discipline.
All of that came with me through the door to KTA. Here, I found the same mental and physical challenges that I had sought and loved in my Taekwondo clubs 20+ years ago. [Let’s face it—the physical challenges are greater. My hamstrings have aged along with the rest of me!] I have also found support, friendship, and excellent teaching from KTA instructors and from fellow students of every level and age. I have found a place where I still—sometimes—experience those all-too-rare moments when body and mind seem to effortlessly and seamlessly connect. I have seen my daughters learning many of the lessons I hoped they would learn. I’ve been humbled over and over and over and over again as I try to learn new skills and to improve familiar ones. And I have found a place that I know will challenge me—mind and body—every day going forward.
Earning a black belt is not, for me, the end of a project I began 20+ years ago in college. It’s not even the end of a project I began 3 years ago here at KTA. It’s not the end of anything. The first day I tie on my black belt will be, instead, the third time that I begin my Taekwondo training.
Sarah Skwire is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund. Her academic research primarily considers the intersections between literature and economics, but ranges widely from early modern material to popular culture. She (and her daughters!) earned their black belts in taekwondo in October of 2017 and they all continue to train for their second dan.