I always grin for the “class photo” after a belt test. I make a point of it—it’s a happy occasion, so I smile broadly every time I attend a belt promotion ceremony. So what’s up with this photo? For this shot, I had just lived through my absolute worst belt test demonstration. I tried to smile but just couldn’t—I had just barely survived my worst nightmare! I felt so ashamed and miserable that this weird look was all I could manage.
Let’s face it: belt test promotions are a challenging but necessary part of dojo life: you get to demonstrate what you’ve learned, and it’s often scary, even difficult. I mean: in front of all those people! What if I mess up? What if I forget a technique? The level of tension can be excruciating.
I was a mid-rank by this point, so I had lived through belt tests before. Nothing catastrophic had happened in earlier tests, and I had never seen anyone go down in flames, so when I stood up to demonstrate I expected nothing strange to happen.
But when my uke's first attack came on, I was shocked and terrified to discover that my mind was a complete blank. I could remember nothing at all. I couldn’t think what to do, I just did . . . something, Lord knows what, and thought to myself, “next technique, I’ll remember.” But the next technique came and went, and I was still drawing a blank. Nothing. No mind at all. I scrambled inwardly, searching everywhere inside me but the doors to thought were shut tight!
And so it went, technique after technique, terrified but still hopeful—and then . . . nothing! Not a single memory came to me, down through the Red belts, the Greens, even the Oranges. Eventually we moved on to Yellow Belt, when I was finally able to remember and feel what I was doing. Sort of.
But by that time, I was feeling so depressed, ashamed, and disappointed that I was just praying for it all to be over so I could go home and feel sorry for myself in private. I endured even getting a new rank, even getting a diploma. All I could feel was Epic Failure. Then the congratulations and the photo op.
I stumbled on over to the after-party lunch and moped around. I wouldn’t sit with everyone, but chose a table for myself, my lucky spouse, and just one other friend. I was not good company! I had just messed up big-time, so I didn’t deserve to join the happy crowd. Sigh.
Eventually my Sensei stopped by to say hello and I don’t even recall what I said to him, but I do remember his response: “So you had a bad belt test.” That stopped me in my tracks. You mean this happens to people sometimes? They just have a bad test? It’s not just me and my personal unworthiness? No more was said about it, but those seven words stunned me out of my downward spiral.
It took a few hours, but gradually the fog and misery lifted from me. It was just a bad belt test, after all. Miserable, but survivable. The following Monday I was back on the mat, a little chagrinned, but ready to train. And dojo life went on.