Angela always tries to keep Mara enrolled in some physical curriculum. I think I mentioned before that Mara has taken soccer and dance classes and lately she has been taking a Tae Kwon Do class at our gym. Wednesday we realized it was the last class and I had not yet got to see Mara participating, so I bagged out of work early and caught a bus. Angela brought the camera and I met up with them there. Mara was excited that I was coming. She had shown me her Tae Kwon Do uniform weeks ago, but seeing her in it, seeing her make her kicks and punches, was a moving experience for me.
When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I was afraid of Roger M. and tried to avoid eye contact with him. Roger had long yellow hair, the longest hair of anyone in school, and a big wide mouth that was always smiling or yelling happily. Looking back now, I realize just what a jubilant character he was. He liked to have fun. He was not a grumpy or vengeful person, and not menacing. He was like a popper filled with confetti. He would not think about you unless he saw you, and if it occurred to him to exercise dominion over you in some festive, experimental way, he would just go ahead and do that. I sat at the same table as Roger in Mr. Llewellyn’s class. Once while I was eating my ham and cheese sandwich, trying to be invisible while Roger and the others at the table talked and joked, he up and smacked the sandwich out of my hand, and laughed heartily, as though this were an experience we would both enjoy sharing together. The sandwich separated into its little triangular parts as it flew across the room. He did not hurt me. I cannot say that I suffered from extreme hunger that day. But it was that kind of sudden, explosive, violation of my personal space that kept me in terror of him.
Roger had a loose band of cronies that went about at recess destroying school property or hanging other kids on hooks by their jacket collars. One day, for reasons that never existed or that I have forgotten, I found myself being carried by Roger’s thugs to a large mud puddle that lay near a large fir tree in the southeast portion of the playfield. The talk was all about throwing me in. I remember the fear. I did not fear mud puddles. Indeed, try as she might, my mother could not by any means keep me out of them when I went outside to play on my own street. I feared the indignity, the loss of my power, the embarrassment. I used to think I hated Roger, but looking back, I see that it would have been impossible to hate him. He was like a cheery pirate. He was dangerous. I feared him, and I was storing up a vast quantity of rage at that time of my life against injustices such as this, but I believe now that my anger was at God, for not protecting me.
Before Roger and his henchmen could release me into the quagmire, I was rescued by Mark H., a tall, popular, hero-shaped person who was similarly attended by a number of hangers on. Mark’s men appeared and demanded my release, and Roger’s men stood down. It is impossible for me to remember this exchange accurately because I see it as cinema. The thugs chuckle and make some cracks about just having a little fun. The righteous savior issues a stern reprimand, the thugs shuffle off.
I do remember that as recess ended I was walking back with Mark’s contingent, they surrounding me as though I were a president who had just nearly been assassinated. They didn’t know me or care that much about me, but the moment was a high one; they had been agents in averting an injustice, and they were all feeling pumped. Ken P. was walking beside me and he said I should take Judo classes. He said he did and it taught him how to defend himself. I could take them at the Bellevue Boys Club.
And so I did. I took Judo lessons so that I would be able to finally not be picked on. I would tear mine enemies into bits, and when I trod the playground great would be the trembling of them, and their knees would smite one against the other. We had to kneel and bow all the way to the ground before a framed photo of some Asian man. I’m embarrassed to say that to this day I do not know who it was. I imagine him as the Emperor of Japan. Having been raised as a fundamentalist evangelical Christian, I felt uneasy about what felt to me like outright worship, but I bowed with the others. For me, there was no disaster worse than not fitting in.
We practiced falling safely, which we achieved by rolling a somersault over one shoulder and then slapping the mat. We also paired up and practiced flipping each other by grabbing our opponent by the lapels of their white Judo suits, turning, squatting and guiding them through the inevitable path overtop of our lean and lethal frames.
I hated going. I was no good at this and I feared the matches. I was tallish, but I was practically weightless in 1975. I had no mass to leverage against my opponent. I went to matches and consistently lost. Other kids I knew moved into the colored belts — yellow, orange, green — but I remained a white belt. There was a neighborhood bully who taunted me across a thigh-high wooden fence one day, he standing on the downhill side and me the up. You can see, I’m sure, the inadvisability of attempting to hoist over your shoulder an opponent who is standing downhill on the other side of a fence. But that was the moment I chose to unsheath my Judo skills on the battlefield. I engaged him, we grappled, and he ended up pulling me over the fence and depositing me in the moist, soft, mossy lawn.
Mara loves Tae Kwon Do because it is physical and fun, and because she is attracted to an order internal to it that is revealed in the person of her instructor, Ms. B. It was a marvel to hear the children shout “Yes Ma’am!” after every instruction she gives them. It is a marvel to watch them slap their hands to their sides and bow sharply and with grace. It is a marvel to see how the children, especially Mara, understand the tensions and bracings, the physical logic of the stances. It is all joy. I know nothing of Tae Kwon Do, and I don’t even know if there is ever an opponent as there is in Judo. At this stage it is mostly individual movement with occasional outside stimulus. Near the end of the class, Ms B. wore big pads on her hands, asked the students to queue up and approached each child in turn pinwheeling the pads alternatingly, left, right, left, right, low left, high right. The children were to use their fists to bat the pads away. She was gentle but persistent. The students, some of them younger and much smaller than Mara, loved this pillow fight. One boy could not stop giggling as Mrs. B. pummelled him.
My favorite part was the pledge that the children repeated at the open and close of the class: “I promise to be a good person, with knowledge in my brain [here they point to their heads], honesty in my heart [cross the forearms over the heart], strength in my body [present strong arms], and to make good friends [here they make a handshake motion].”
I never internalized any such promise to myself or anyone else in my young Judo days. I brought my fear to it, and my fear bred more fear, and finally a sense of failure. I learned to avoid physical fights but, to my detriment, I also continued avoiding discipline and effort as well.
Imagine my surprise when Roger asked me one day if I would accompany him to an afterschool Bible camp. I couldn’t imagine why he, whom I regarded as a soul bound exuberantly for the Pit, was attending a gathering of Christians. Maybe he couldn’t either, but he said he would get a prize if he brought someone else, and since he knew I was already a Christian I was the only one he could think to ask. I rode my bike to his house, which I had never before visited and would never have believed that I would ever want to, and we rode — of all places — to Mark H’s house. It turned out my faith tribe included Mark H., or at least his family, who were hosting the camp.
It made sense, the hero rescuer would be among the Saints. But in truth, I never felt any kinship or even friendship with Mark, and in seventh grade he found out about a crush I had on the eighth-grader Carolyn D. and shamed me in front of my entire Spanish class with a big grin on his face. I don’t know what ever became of him.
Roger grew up and started a landscape business, which I found out years after I had worked in nurseries and become a plantsman myself. Like me, it seems, he loves shrubs and trees and flowers and being outside. Anyone can surprise you, given enough time. There is kinship in the strangest places. I have hope that I have cultivated some honesty in my heart, because now when I think of Roger, instead of remembering the day he cornered me on the way home from school and used my upper arm for punching practice, I mostly see him riding his bike ahead of me on the long, deeply potholed private drive through the Beaux Arts neighborhood on the way to Bible camp, turning his head back to address me with his corn-colored hair flying and that wide and ebullient grin, and shouting “Hey look! We’re on the holey road!”