At the age of eight, my son Josh took a karate class at the neighborhood community center with kids and adults of all levels. I would watch the tail end of the class when I picked him up, thinking, “I could do that.” One day, the instructor sat down beside me and asked me when I was going to join the class, so I took the leap.

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. But learning to fight back was the whole point of self-defense, wasn’t it? As the instructor explained how to “X” the straps of the protective chest pad in the back, I joked nervously “I’d like to ‘exit’ over there,” pointing toward the door.

He assigned a young man about my height and weight to spar with me. With speed and precision, my sparring partner advanced toward me, ready to punch. Did I draw on my many months of drills to expertly 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 and let out such a deafening scream, I’m surprised none of my fellow students sued me for hearing loss.

The merciless 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, including my child. At that point the instructor sent me to the sidelines, where I sat too mortified to even glance at my son, who I assumed would never want to be seen in public with me again in his life.

I soon felt a small hand on my shoulder. I looked up and to my surprise it was Josh. “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 in trying I had set an example of perseverance and determination that had earned my boy’s compassion and respect, a much bigger prize than I could ever had expected from a community karate class.

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