Madison Monday: Not the Super Bowl

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Yesterday was the day of (this year, at least) a pretty good football game bookended and permeated with a lot of consumerist noise. I’m not going to get on a high horse and say I don’t like watching the commercials, too. I do. But I actually like watching just football games, and the Super Bowl makes it difficult to actually do that. I also thought it was interesting that both of the teams this year are named after solid, working class jobs which, at least in the case of meatpacker, no longer pay a decent wage. But that’s another story.

This weekend in Madison, I witnessed a sporting event of a completely different kind than the Super Bowl. You might call it in many ways the anti-Super Bowl, or the un-Super Bowl. There were impressive feats of physical ability. The athletes had worked long and hard at developing their expertise. That’s about where the similarities end.

This Saturday was testing day at Taylor’s Tae Kwon Do Academy in Madison, nestled right at the bottom of Hanging Rock Hill road. My stepdaughter has been taking tae kwon do there for several months, but this was the first time she tested on a Saturday instead of during regular class time. We got there at noon, though the testing for black belts had begun at 10:00. There are times when I’ve taken her to class and she’s been the only student there, so I was unprepared for the size of the tae kwon do community. The place was jam packed, parking at a premium. We had to stand by the door, and at first I thought to myself, “Crud, here’s my Saturday down the drain.” I don’t always do so well in crowds or with waiting.

The black belt testing was not yet over, and so what was happening was that fairly normal looking people, people who looked like me (I could be misguided in thinking I’m normal looking, I guess) were breaking concrete slabs with their hands! Not steroid pumped, over 6 feet tall, supermen like those we saw on the field yesterday. Just normal folks. Breaking concrete. With their hands. And they weren’t crying. That was pretty cool in and of itself, and one rather advanced student kicked himself up in the air with a stick and then kicked through several layers of concrete with his foot. It was like being at the circus, only these were people who live in your town. Like your neighbor was up there putting her head in the lion’s mouth.

I don’t have pictures because I’m not sure if all these folks wanted to have their faces for everyone on the Internet to see, but let me tell you what the room looked like. All around the edges of the mat were parents and kids and relatives. All of us folks who can’t break concrete with our hands. On the mat were groups of kids sitting around, talking and trying to be generally quiet and not run around like maniacs. And then other groups of adults and kids who were black belts mixed together chatting and watching. After the black belts finished, the colored belts started, including my stepdaughter. To test at Taylor’s Tae Kwon Do academy, you have to demonstrate your forms, spar for two minutes, demonstrate your knowledge of vocabulary and (the best part) break something! So we sat there watching successive groups go through this process.

Here’s what was so great about testing day. Different groups included different ages, because everything’s based on time and ability level. So my daughter was in a group with kids a lot younger and kids a lot older and adults, and they were all in the same boat. For demonstrating some of the forms, sparring and breaking stuff, they need volunteers, so usually the black belts help. What this means is that testing is a cooperative effort. Though how you do is all about individual effort, you literally cannot test by yourself. And you’re being judged not relative to how other people do, but on the merits of your own performance; the point in sparring is not to win or lose, but just do demonstrate what you’ve learned. Unlike Sunday’s event, the goal here is neither realistically or metaphorically about destroying someone.

Everyone, those on the mat and those of us just watching, cheer each other on. They clap when a group does their forms. They definitely clap when you succeed in breaking something (cuz that’s cool). But they clapped even when someone didn’t successfully break their board. And sometimes when there was just one person left out there, trying to break their board, you didn’t get a sense that everyone was embarrassed for them, but just urging them on and genuinely hoping they would succeed. That’s not the general vibe I get when someone on the football field misses a field goal or fumbles or drops a pass.

What I saw was a community, a community which I’m sure has its flaws just like any other, but that on that day, was all about helping each other as individuals to achieve something. How cool is that? Really? Cooler than any commercial. There are scholars who speculate that in modern Western societies we have moved farther and farther away from real community. We’re not very good at it anymore, in our suburban houses with lots of space between us and cars to shelter ourselves from the world and get quickly from one place to another without having to encounter anything in between. But losing community leaves a gap, and some folks speculate that we fill it by buying stuff. Commercials help that along. They would have us believe that community and happiness are things you can buy.

Well, it costs money to take lessons at Taylor’s Tae Kwon Do academy, but it looked like to me on Saturday that you get a lot more than a knowledge of the martial arts for your money. My stepdaughter got the experience of seeing what it’s like to work toward a goal with a group of people lifting you up and helping you along. And she got to break something with her foot in the bargain! I can’t help but think of the difference between experiencing the Super Bowl, and experiencing test day at Taylor’s Tae Kwon Do academy, and what those two things have to teach us. Among the lessons I learned this weekend is that if you are looking for moments that demonstrate our very best as people, you’ll probably be able to find them. And I’m admittedly biased, but especially in Madison.

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