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I’M GOING TO GET MY ASS KICKED

I was definitely bullied in my early school years. I remember a discussion at the lunch table where the boys in my class ranked each other on “who could kick whose butt” in a fight. I came in second to last! Knowing I could only take down one kid did not sit well, particularly since one of those kids who I’ll call BUMMER started targeting me, beating me up in the hallway and making fun of me all the time. Sure, my voice cracked incessantly and my socks were pulled up too high and dyed neon green, but there was no good reason for the constant taunting that was distracting enough to ruin my prospects for passing the spelling test one day. Once, I was so nervous about getting picked on that I forgot how to spell my own name—my teacher handed my test back and told me to switch the “e” and the “a” to spell “Micheal” correctly. 

I often considered trying to befriend BUMMER to get him to leave me alone, but I didn’t have the courage to approach him. My mother told me to talk to him, but I didn’t know what to say. “Hey, can you stop picking on me and come over my house for cookies after school?” It didn’t seem right, and I felt so weak, like there was nothing I could do but pray to make it through every school day without being embarrassed and shoved up against my locker. My stepmom suggested that I “kick him in the balls and run,” but that didn’t seem right, either. My father finally stepped in and had a conversation with the principal, who later confronted the bully in his office with me there. BUMMER cried incessantly, apologized, and said he didn’t think he did anything. My image of him completely changed; he was no longer this unapproachable tough guy—he was weak, just like I was. What a bummer for him, because I suddenly realized that everyone was human deep down and that maybe a sense of being physically safe was possible for anyone, even me. As a kid, I needed my dad to rescue me; but I wanted to defend myself, so I decided to learn karate!

Growing up, I alternated between watching game shows and animated superhero series, and I loved the action scenes when the characters fought and the heroes won, even without using their special powers! I wanted to be a superhero, but since I couldn’t web-sling or throw fireballs, I thought knowing karate would be as close as I could get to being one.  Luckily, my stepmom knew the head instructor at a local dojo that taught Tae-Kwon-Do. So I signed up. All the guys had very serious military haircuts—hence my unfortunate flattop—and very quickly, I got into some hard core training.

Tae-Kwon-Do was great for me. I trained for many years while growing up, slowly progressing through the belt levels while learning how to properly wear a jockstrap and cup. Karate is extremely disciplined, and every class started with proper breathing (in through the nose, out through the mouth) and ended with meditation. I learned to be calm. Class consisted of stretching, exercises going across the floor, patterns, and sparring, and I was expected to do everything and never quit. It was hard to remember the names and performance techniques of all the foreign movements, particularly after school when I was tired. I had to be patient and push myself to improve, and eventually the class routine became second nature. The proper arm went up when I turned and kicked every time, and I naturally kept my guard up when fighting. Now I wanted to compete, and was ready to be a superhero!

I remember one local competition when I was sparring and having trouble defeating my opponent. He was heavy (eating too much “Chunky Monkey,” apparently), and having been training so much, I was not; so it really frustrated me that nothing I was throwing at him moved him. Then, I don’t know if it was through careful observation of one of the girls in my dojo who was known for her downward kick (a calculated kick in which you lift your leg as high as possible above your opponent’s face and drop it down on him with as much force as possible), or if I just got so agitated that I saw BUMMER’s face instead of the fat kid’s, but I forced my leg so high up in the air that when my downward kick struck my opponent he went downward indeed!

He was unconscious on the floor for several minutes, and I was disqualified (for excessive force and lack of self-control).

Bummer! But the good news is that I learned I was insanely flexible!

My newfound flexibility, which quickly surpassed the levels of anyone in my class, was a newfound tool in my arsenal of not only self-defense, but also self-control. I learned my patterns—a series of choreographed movements—and performed them with such ease and agility that my head master noticed my skill and insisted I compete internationally, especially once I got my first black belt. The final competition of the season was fast approaching and was being held in Canada, and I went to compete at the senior level. I was matched up against some of the best and most experienced athletes in the world, and I had to fight them. I recall the sense of fear looking at these guys that I could get my butt kicked again just like I did in school, and not even my downward kick or my disdain of BUMMER’s face could save
me this time.

Sometimes yellow lights appear too fast when you’re speeding, like scary situations you’re not prepared enough to handle; and, you have to go through the light because there’s not enough time to brake. I knew I had pushed myself to get in this competition and now had the whole school watching me compete, and I was representing my country, so I was not going down without a good fight.

During the competition I had to fight this one guy who was so big that I thought, “How did David really take down Goliath?” He was taller, more muscular, and probably more experienced at fighting. Right before we started the match, we shook hands in front of the head judge. He asked us if we were ready and, with as much conviction as I could muster, I squeaked, “Ready.” He said something I couldn’t understand because it wasn’t in English and it was in a really low voice. Having just sized up my competition, right at that moment, I knew I was screwed. Once the match started, I backed away, trying to leave some distance in case he tried to punch or lunge at me, all the while waiting for the right time to take Goliath down with my downward kick. I kept moving around the floor, circling him while he was relatively stationary. Since he seemed reluctant to move, I thought now would be as good a time as any so, I jumped at him, launched my leg as high in the air as possible, and dropped it down on him with everything I had, certain of success. My foot made contact with his neck and…not even a damn scratch! BOOM! Next thing I knew, I was on the floor underneath one of the corner judge’s chairs. I had gotten so close to the guy trying to kick him that he punched me square in the chest with enough force to send me backwards, crashing on the floor. I looked up at the judge and wanted to ask, “Any ideas?” I could have really used some superhero special powers right then. But I got up, and just kept fighting. It was the longest two minute audition of my life.

I didn’t win, but I didn’t lose either. I walked away placing somewhere in the middle of the pack of guys competing, but also without any major injuries or embarrassments for how I performed. I felt a little better about the fact that no one else could beat the giant guy either (he took first place). Of course I was disappointed I didn’t win, but I tried my best, and there was nothing more I could do.

But my fight was not over; now I had to fight off my frustrations and compete in the pattern competition against the same group of guys immediately after. With steady focus and careful manipulation of my body in choreographed movements at an advanced level and in direct comparison to those of my competitor’s beside me (duel patterns are performed at the same time in competition), I made it to the final frame of competition, competing for either silver or gold. At the end of the night, during the final heat, our names, schools, and nationalities were announced to the stadium.  It was between me and some other hopeful, for the title. I had to redeem myself. I had to be on my game and balance every high leg and turned out foot. I had to show control and let my training and hard work take over. I had to…not forget the pattern!

Don't worry, I didn't. But he did!

Out of the corner of my eye about half-way through the routine, I saw that he turned the wrong way, stopped abruptly, and then turned around to follow me. All I had to do to win was finish the routine. And that’s the thing about speeding, just when you think you have to outrace someone to make the light, they crash, and you can just coast on through. As we stood there awaiting our verdict, all the judges’ flags unanimously pointed toward me. I won my first international gold medal, the one I wasn’t planning to win, but was most proud to win; an achievement about which my mom later said, “A lot of medals are given out, but there’s only one gold.” Upon winning, the crowd roared with an applause that was scary, but I just thought to myself, “Relax, you done good, kid.” This time, without any doubts.