At the age of 8, my son Josh took a karate class at our neighborhood community center with kids and adults of all levels. I would always watch the tail end of the class when I picked him up, thinking, 'I could do that.' I wanted to spend more time with my son while giving my office-worker's body some exercise, and I liked the idea of being able to defend myself.
One day, the instructor sat down beside me and asked when I was going to join the class, so I took the leap. My first lesson was in humility: as all the class members lined up by rank. I came last, behind the grandmother, the teenagers, my beginner son and the fidgety first-graders.
My next lesson was in endurance, as we practiced each type of punch, block and kick dozens of times, first all together in unison, and then in pairs, rotating partners. I got bruises on my arms from blocking the punches -- although these purple badges of courage gave me the illusion of toughening up.
After a year of weekly practice, I finally moved up to the next level, where we were expected to learn to spar. Josh, like all the other boys, adored sparring. I, on the other hand, was dreading it. I told myself learning to fight back was the whole point of self-defense, and yet as the instructor explained how to "X" the straps of the protective chest pad across my back, I joked nervously, "I'd like to 'exit' over there," and pointed toward the door.
He assigned to me a young man about my height and weight. With speed and precision, my partner advanced toward me, ready to punch. Did I draw on my many months of drills to block his strike, pivot away from the punch or counter with a kick? No. I did what any middle-aged chicken would do: I backed into the corner shrieking.
The instructor ordered me back into the sparring, at which point I lost any remaining composure. I started crying, right there, in front of the entire class. The instructor sent me to the sidelines, where I sat on the floor with my face to the wall, too mortified to even glance at my son. I assumed he would never want to be seen in public with me again.
Josh came over and placed his small hand on my shoulder. "Don't worry, Mommy," he reassured me. "Nobody ever gets it right the first time."
I hadn't learned to spar, much less won the match, but at that moment I realized that by trying I had set an example of perseverance and determination. I had earned my son's compassion and respect, which was a much bigger reward than I had ever expected to receive from a community karate class.
Alexandra Russell is part of WAMU's Lifelong Learning series, a partnership with the Faces of Learning Campaign to share personal stories of powerful learning experiences.