by Richard Folkers
On this particular Saturday, I must confess I really didn’t want to come to class. Instead of being disciplined and working hard the way Mr. Kim preaches we should, I merely went through the motions, being where I was supposed to be, doing more or less what I was supposed to do, but not really paying attention. My recollection of that day’s lesson is pretty sketchy, but I know I spent part of the time sitting down. I remember some stretching and some combinations. Near the end of class, I stood towards the back, in my accustomed spot, where I thought I’d be comfortably out of sight and, of course, out of mind. But then things went terribly wrong.
Mr. Kim was addressing the class, speaking, the best I can recall, about dedication and commitment. My eyes were facing the flags, but not particularly focused on anything. As the morning’s clouds parted ever so briefly, a ray of sun poked through the window and glistened off of the four gold bars on Mr. Kim’s belt. That tiny flash of light jolted me from my stupor. I looked right at him. In a sickening instant, I realized that Mr. Kim was looking right back at me. Not looking, actually. Staring. Not just staring. He was glaring. His eyes were drilling through me, with a look that said he was trying to decide whether to yell or to turn me into something very much like the filling in a Twinkie.
I knew I had done something very wrong, something far worse than inattention. Yet I couldn’t figure out just what. It had to be something big. Shoppers in the Whole Foods parking garage stopped outside their monstrous SUVs to gaze at me in horror. The lunch crowd at Guapo’s paused between baskets of greasy tortilla chips for a moment of silence. A barista at Starbucks knocked over a dozen venti half-caf soy lattes like they were bowling pins. Without any question, in less time than it would have taken Mr. Kim to extinguish my life, I had become a marked man. But why?
And then I realized it. I knew what I had done. I was leaning on Mr. Kim’s wall. Not just a subtle, nonchalant lean, mind you. Two elbows and one chin. It had taken no more than a few fleeting seconds, but I had become a Bad Tae Kwon Do Parent.
I stood, frozen; my brain flashed rapid images of a fight-or-flight debate that had no winner. The silence seemed interminable. With the kind of slow-motion movement normally reserved for snake charmers and federal government employees, I straightened myself and gingerly dropped my hands to my side. Almost as slowly, Mr. Kim turned away from me, went back to his class, and finished lecturing. The session ended, my kid got dressed, and we headed for the door. Mr. Kim didn’t come over. He didn’t ask to talk to me. He just went back to work. Flushing with relief–and a bit of lingering nausea–I couldn’t escape a thought: He can’t really do anything to me. Violence is against the law. He’s a black belt. Don’t the cops have him registered as a lethal weapon? Besides, I’m a parent. I pay the tuition bills. What’s he gonna do? With a rush of Rocky movie confidence, I hit the stairs, pumping my fists once or twice for good measure.
It was liberating. From that day on, I was a new dad. During class, I strode right across the studio to the restroom, not even pausing to remove my muddy boots. I stopped by the studio one day after work and, without asking first, took a shower with the curtain open, soaked the floor, and just left. Cellphone call during graduation? No problem. Nowhere to eat lunch? Grab Mr. Kim’s office. Need to check E-mail? Mr. Kim’s got a computer; he won’t mind. In fact, he never so much as glanced in my direction. I had it all figured out. It was the best nine days of my life.
The trouble started on a Monday night. At about 7:30, just as Entertainment Tonight was coming on, the doorbell rang. Nobody was there. Must have been a sound effect on the upstairs TV, I figured. A few minutes later, it rang again. A pizza guy stood on my step, carrying a dozen mushroom-and-tofu pies, none of which I’d ordered. In the next hour, six telemarketers called, each of them asking for me not by my name, but by my Social Security number. The next morning I found a NASCAR bumper sticker on my car. Every button on the radio was set for a country station. I woke up the morning after that and discovered a tattoo of Donny Osmond on my right shoulder.
The days just kept getting worse. Some gent, who would only identify himself as “the guy from America’s Most Wanted,” kept calling to ask my daughter out. Subscriptions to Cat Fancy and Modern Bride began arriving in my mailbox. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I knew in my heart where the trouble was coming from. The lesson had become eminently clear: Martial arts masters know all about punches and kicks, about teaching and coaching. But I learned the hard way that they also know everything there is to know about practical jokes.
I tried to apologize, but all Mr. Kim gave me was an icy stare. I tried to talk to Ms. Pucciarelli (who had always been so smiling and friendly), but discovered, to my shock, that she was fluent in a certain gesture I was taught never to use. Mr. Kim had poisoned the whole neighborhood around Yong Studios against me. I went to Subway. They wouldn’t serve me. The mattress store next door insisted on charging list price. The dry cleaners at the corner sewed the fly shut on all of my pants. Nothing, it seemed, would get me back in the good graces of Yong Studios. Nothing, as it turned out, except time and good behavior.
Months passed. I learned to change. I grew up.
It will only be a few more weeks now until Mr. Kim’s restraining order will expire. I am well-mannered and quiet, disciplined and focused. I now sit quietly during my kid’s class–in the bar at Guapo’s. Fortunately the Twinkie margaritas are better than they sound.