As of tonight, the belt I wear in karate class is black.
. . . mostly.
My actual rank is shodan-ho, which translates to something like “probationary first degree.” It means I wear a black belt with a white stripe. After my next test (which won’t be for months), I’ll wear a black belt with a red stripe, and then some number of months after that, I will be an actual honest-to-god black belt.
This means I have made it through the “brown belt blues,” i.e. the stretch of time where you feel like you’re making no progress at all. Our dojo has three degrees of brown belt (going from sankyu to ikkyu), and it’s a minimum of 45 classes between tests; at two classes a week, you spend a long time as a brown belt. Apparently a lot of people burn out and quit at that stage. (I myself am guilty of having slacked off for a while in there.) But now I’ve rounded the corner; the end is in sight.
Except of course it isn’t an end at all. Shodan basically just means that you’re considered “trained” — I’d give the serious side-eye to anybody below that rank who set themselves up as a teacher. There’s nigh-infinite room for improvement above that, though. The lowest-ranking teacher at our dojo is third dan, and Shihan himself is ninth. So, y’know. Shodan isn’t “mission accomplished; now I rest on my laurels.” But it’s a landmark, and one that is no longer quite so hypothetical. I could be there in a year and a half, if I’m consistent about making it to the dojo.
My test on Friday was kind of brutal, mostly because I was the only adult karate student testing this month, which means I had to go through the whole thing without any pauses. (Normally you get to rest while the other students perform their kata.) Stances, standing basics, moving basics, four karate kata (two pinan of my choice, jitte, and tomari passai), two sai kata (kihongata ichi and ni), two bo kata (donyukon ichi and ni), thirty-five shrimps, thirty push-ups, running in place for a minute. It took me ten minutes afterward to change out of my gi and repack my bag, I was moving so slowly. But I passed, and that’s the important part.
It’s very satisfying to look at how much I’ve learned. Not the number of kata, but the knowledge of how to perform them: the ability to think about something in jitte and connect it to a similar-but-different move in pinan san-dan, or to catch an error in my own movement before a senpai comes along to correct me. I’ve been doing this for a little over five years, and the progress is real.
Give me another year and a half, and you might even be able to call me fully trained.