Archived Story

The tallest, slowest, oldest student in class

Published 10:28am Friday, April 20, 2012

Column: Notes from Home

So, we stand in parallel lines, the whole group of us clad in white uniforms, different colored belts around our waists, practicing our kicks.

Kee-hap, the lead instructor calls out, and Kee-hap we all call out in reply, kicking our right legs up and out as high as we can stretch. Hands and arms are up, forming fists. Heads face forward. We kick five times. Ten times. Then we switch to the left leg.

Tae kwan do: For an hour or more each Monday night, we kick, we punch or double-punch — left, right — then we twist and kick out to the side or turn and strike behind us. Kee-hap. Our opponents are theoretical, we block their invisible attacks and then try to kick, punch or strike them before they have a chance to recover.

Most of the students in the class are about 4 feet tall, except for one, who towers over the rest even though he’s a bit under 6 feet without his shoes on. Even the instructors, two of whom are teenagers, are shorter than this awkward giant. Stuck there in the back row, his kicks aren’t quite as high. His punches aren’t quite as quick. And his Kee-haps … they aren’t quite as aggressive or loud, and he always looks around self-consciously after he yells, in case he has to apologize to anyone he startles.

That tall, awkward man in the white uniform? Me. I started the class last August, the only adult beginner — the only adult student — in a class of almost 20.

Something different to keep in shape during the winter, that’s what I wanted. Running outside is becoming bearable and I’m starting to become disciplined about it. I’m just not disciplined enough to run outside when it’s below 40 degrees, OK, below 50. I find that any of the pleasure possible when running outside evaporates as I move inside and onto a treadmill — what I call a human-sized hamster wheel.

I’ve tried swimming, cross trainers, basketball, aerobics and even plain old weightlifting. Swimming requires the ability to swim — I can float really well. Cross training machines are just a different version of the hamster wheel, plus they all face TV monitors showing either talk shows or game shows or an all news channel — I don’t like TV. Shooting baskets is fine, until other people show up assuming I’m looking for a game. Weightlifting looks stupid, at least when I watch myself do it in the mirror.

Yoga is also on the list of attempts, but that didn’t catch fire with me either. It’s a great workout, and includes a spiritual component — something I also value — but I can only handle so much new age music, calm voices and candlelit workouts.

So I signed up for the Monday evening tae kwan do class, thinking it might be what I wanted, hoping that there would be other adults also taking the class. The first class was hard, at first because I was clearly older than everybody else by a couple of decades or more, but then it was hard because of the stretching and kicking and punching and twisting.

I persevered, though, because of the hard work it required and the conditioning I was getting. Flexibility, balance, even strength is improving. The first test behind me, I now wear an orange and black belt. And despite my age and awkwardness, I was accepted into the community of students. The kids seem to like a student “old as my grandpa” as a beginner in the course.

Martial arts requires discipline, similar to the kind required to get out and running every day. It’s a mental art and a physical one, in some ways like yoga, only more dynamic, more active. My body and my mind are both being exercised each time I work out in class or practice at home.

So, what about those readers out there who are older, more awkward, less active, a bit slower? The ones who resist the seductions of the treadmill, the tedium of the weight room, the terrors of basketball games? Maybe there’s a reason for those readers to take a look at a martial arts class, too.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.