My school promotes students to black belt about once every ten months on average. We never do more than two or three at a time.
At the last one, in March, I promoted to black belt, along with two other students. We were the last three students to join the program while it was still at Boston College – the end of an era. I remember a lot of weekend practices and nights at the dojo until 10:00 or later. I remember waking myself up at night worrying, and then calming myself back down again the following morning. Other than that I don’t remember much, which is why I’m grateful for the photos.
This past Saturday, I stood in the back, along with the twenty-odd other black belts still active in Sensei Nick’s program. Two students knelt in the front – Rudy, the first student to join the program at its current home in Watertown; and Andy, who had started training 15 years ago but taken time off to recover from injuries. I didn’t really feel “senior” to them; the distinction between them, as students, and myself as a sensei seemed artificial. It’d become irrelevant in two hours anyway.
Black belt tests differ for every student. They’re intensely personal and revealing challenges: imagine fighting a horde of ninjas to get to the church on your wedding day. So I can’t really tell you what the test meant for Rudy and Andy. But I can say what the belt itself means, because it’s a point I’ve heard Nick re-iterate at least ten times since I’ve started training.
Getting a black belt (in our style) isn’t a destination. It’s a point on a greater journey. It’s the undergraduate degree. Black belt doesn’t mean you’ve learned everything: it means you’ve learned how to learn. Now you’re ready to start seriously training as a martial artist – if you want to.
Of course, that’s what the black belt signifies to the school. What it signifies to the student is something else. Nick requires each student to write a paper the week before their test, explaining what getting a black belt means to them. I’ve read Rudy’s and Andy’s, and the other black belts have read the one I wrote.
I’ll let you read mine too, if you like. Just promote to black belt at our school and I’ll e-mail you a copy.