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An excerpt from

It took me six years to get my black belt.
Two fifty-five-minute classes every Monday and Wednesday after school, plus Friday night sparring and Saturday morning demo-team practice. Two belt tests per year, spring and fall, like a pendulum swinging ever higher. I memorized the colors, chanted them to myself in bed at night. The walls of the dojang were white except for a section at the front of the room where a brightly painted ladder, one fat brick per color, reached up to the ceiling. As if I’d ever forget. White belt, yellow belt, orange belt, purple belt, green belt, light blue belt, dark blue belt, red belt, red with black stripe, brown belt, brown with black stripe, black belt. And guess what black is? Hint: it’s not the end. It’s not the highest level, not even close. Black belt means now you get to start. Now you get to learn martial arts. You’re back at the beginning: first degree. There are twelve degrees, and each one takes years and years to achieve, maybe even a decade. Only like five people in the world are twelfth-degree black belts, and they’re ancient and live on top of mountains and stuff. My black belt wasn’t the end, and it wasn’t the beginning. It doesn’t represent six years of hard work, constant practice, anxiety attacks on test day, stacks of certificates, a cabinet full of trophies, sweat, pain, and elation—or Friday nights spent sparring while my friends went to the movies. My black belt represents everything I could’ve done and everything I didn’t do, the only time it really mattered.