Just under a year ago, I wrote my first piece  for Inside Higher Ed. It wasn’t for this blog, which was still in the planning stages; rather, it was a piece on teaching and tae kwon do. It was a “coming out” of sorts — it was the first time I’d written anything public about my tae kwon do practice, which still felt rather new to me.
Last Saturday, I tested — and earned — my black belt in tae kwon do. I demonstrated all of the “forms” or “patterns” that I’ve learned, I broke some boards, I sparred with classmates. I sat quietly while I watched my classmates do the same. My son and I were testing together, as we have done since I started joining him for lessons almost three years ago. He is less than a year away from his second-degree black belt, and as the two of us performed our patterns side-by-side I remembered watching him test for his first (yellow) belt. He was a nervous six-year-old then, uncomfortable performing in public. Now, almost twelve, he is confident and secure. Just before the test he had run through a few of my newer patterns with me, reminding me that I really did know them, reassuring me that my nerves would pass. It was a nice reversal.
I realized on Saturday that I’ve spent nearly as long studying tae kwon do as I did writing my dissertation. The comparison intrigued me. While the Ph.D. obviously has more professional value to me than the black belt, the black belt is the more surprising accomplishment — and the more welcome, in some ways, for that very surprise. While my dissertation sits on a shelf, rarely consulted except when I need a bibliographic reference, the black belt will be with me every time I go to class, a visual marker of the skills it represents. And the black belt is really the first recognition I’ve ever had for any physical accomplishment. (Not for me the shelf of trophies for just showing up to soccer practice; I came of age in the days of kickball at recess, and I was always the last child picked.) The Ph.D., on the other hand, was merely the last in a long list of academic achievements. Certainly I value it — and I worked hard for it, don’t get me wrong! — but I’m relishing the newness of this latest achievement and its difference from what I’ve done before.
As he usually does on such occasions, our tae kwon do master made a brief speech before wrapping the new black belt around my waist. He mentioned my dedication to the sport, my consistency in practice. “Some people come in with raw talent,” he said. “They take a few lessons and everything comes easily to them. Sometimes they don’t even come back — it’s too easy for them.” He didn’t say so in so many words, but the contrast with my own case was obvious — made even more so when he reminded us of the parable of the tortoise and the hare. This hasn’t been easy for me; my progress has sometimes been slow; raw talent has never been my problem.
It takes as long for a first-degree black belt to earn the second degree as it does for a raw beginner to earn a black belt. I’ve made some strides, but I’ve got more to learn in tae kwon do before I feel comfortable claiming my status or trying to teach others. In this, too, it’s like earning the Ph.D. The credential marks an important way station in my education, but it’s far from over. We had cake and snacks to celebrate my black belt on Saturday, but I’ll be back in class on Wednesday. And as I prepare to teach my classes tomorrow, it’s good to remember that I’m still learning there as well.