One Saturday morning shortly after his eighth birthday, Andy, dressed in red sweatshirt and red athletic pants, walked purposely to Tessai a local kickboxing gym, and waited on the street 15 minutes for it to open.
When the instructor opened the door, Andy entered as if he knew the place. He proceeded to take a one-hour private lesson, focusing as diligently as I have ever seen him in any activity. Hands held up near his chin, he glared and fired away at the target held by the coach. Just a year before, he had remarked how I had looked like Ultraman during a soccer game when I had taken a tumble and turned it into a roll that brought me back to my feet. Now it was his turn, I thought, to look like Ultraman, all in red, punching and kicking.
OK, maybe he didn’t look like Ultraman (he did!), but it did seem that he had been waiting a long time to train there.
Perhaps, he had. He retired from judo when he was 5 years old. A little young, you might say, but he had joined the dojo when he was 4. Then, after a year and despite surprising promise, he hung up his dogi. It took a while for him to explain why, but he finally answered my persistent question.
“I know the teachers are trying encourage us, daddy, but it makes me feel bad when they yell.”
“They’re not yelling at you.”
“I know, but I still feel bad.”
Oh well….Choosing and/or abandoning a sport around his birthday has become something of a ritual. When he turned 6, we visited the Pump 2 Climbing Gym near Nakanoshima station in Kawasaki. I had been told that only children of elementary school age were allowed to climb, yet when we went upstairs to the bouldering area we saw a 3-year-old boy hanging by one hand at the top of the beginner’s wall. What?
The boy’s father later told me, “They made an exception for us. Told them I wanted to climb a lot here, but wouldn’t without him. We’re a package deal. They had to take us both.” So, Andy and I had waited three years, when all it would have taken was a little more push, a little more gaijin insistence, from me.
Kickboxing is now a regular routine. He is in a class of seven students, including four who attended his daycare when they were toddlers. The kickboxing workout consists of kicking and punching heavy bags, sit-ups and pushups, and stretching — all good things for kids, made even better with long-time friends. They have begun light sparring, but mostly it’s a sweaty workout. The coach doesn’t shout, but does give out extra pushups for misbehavior, but usually the kids go about their workout with obedient purpose.
Despite his friends being in the group class, it took a while Andy to agree to join. His first several lessons were private. This was surprising considering when he joined a soccer team the previous fall, he simply ran out onto the field. “This is different, that’s just soccer,” he said. Kickboxing is different? He gave an emphatic nod, but had no more to say about it.