The Rainbow of Rank in a Martial Arts School

As a kid, you can’t choose your school, your parents, your city, your neighborhood, or much of anything else about your environment. You have no control and, when the situation is negative and intimidating, that debilitating feeling can stick with you for life. Martial arts changes all that. The rank system provides a direct path to respect that you control by training hard, following the rules, and enduring.

With rank comes more control, to the point that people bow to you and call you Sir or Ma’am. Because you trained the hardest and absorbed the lifestyle without question, it’s usually not long before you are helping out in class and then actually leading classes. To a kid who was in an intimidating, powerless situation, this turnaround in control is like water to a plant: it gives new life. I know it did for me. Being a teacher of anything gives you a feeling of significance and self esteem.

I was in 8th grade when I earned my green belt. Green is a great belt color, because it’s a lot darker than orange or yellow. It looks like you’ve been around for a while and know something.

After I cleaned the martial arts school, Mr. Farrah said that now that I was a green belt, we were going to rank spar for three rounds. This, I discovered, was the instructor’s way of making sure you didn’t get too cocky with your new belt. For three rounds he pounded me into the ground.

Then Mr. Bone drove up. He said, “Hey, green belt. Let’s belt fight.” I said I had just rank sparred with Mr. Farrah. He laughed and said we were going to fight using our belts like nunchaku. The rule was no hitting to the face and, if your opponent grabbed your belt, you could punch and kick them until they let go.

I really had no choice, so I bowed in by snapping my belt between my hands with a hard yank. He did the same, and that’s when I noticed something. My snap sounded kind of soft. His sounded like a whip snapping, because his belt was one of the heavy Tokaido silk black belts, whereas mine was made of very soft, light cotton. I was in big trouble.

He hit me on the outside of the thigh so hard I almost flipped. My attempts to hit him fluttered into his blocks. He continued to hit me in the same spot over and over until the skin was broken and I was bleeding and limping while trying to fend him off. After we bowed out, I took my green belt class and staggered home. The next day on the school bus, every time we hit a bump, my eyes would water from the pain in my body, especially my thigh. As painful as that was, I knew it was a reward for moving up the ranks. I was moving closer to the inner circle, and it was worth it.

In my martial arts school, white belts were called “scummy white belts.” You didn’t have a name until you got up to at least blue or brown belt (oddly enough, you were given a key to the school when you made blue belt, so that you could practice). Until then, you were referred to by your rank, as in “Green belt, get over here.” In my case, since I cleaned the school for lessons, the instructors knew me well.

Despite the pain involved in this type of training, many of us took to it like a moth to light. Karate class was a haven to me. From my first day in class at age 13, I knew this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. Since I had quit football, and karate required a 12-month contract for $25 per month, my parents wouldn’t pay for the classes, so I cleaned the school for lessons. I was the original “wax on. wax off” kid. The second day I was cleaning. Mr. Farrah snapped at me to finish my cleaning before I practiced. With a flashback of being yelled at by my parents and embarrassed in front of other kids, I almost quit that day.

I remember making the conscious decision not to fall back into the pattern of quitting if things got rough. The following week he punched me in the head with his bare fist. It was playful, not malicious, but it really hurt. I was getting his attention, so I took it.

Mr. Farrah was a great influence on me during my teen years. Mr. Farrah was a funny, charismatic guy who mentored me all the way to first-degree brown belt. He taught me a lot but there were clear rules and no doubt who the black belt was.