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Pro-Voices: The Power of Perseverance

Mara Bernstein  Follow

When I was in first grade, all of my friends and my little sister were signing up for dance classes. I took dance in kindergarten and being as shy as I was, I never wanted to do a dance recital again. So naturally, my mind went to where every six-year-old girl’s mind goes, karate.

I asked my parents if I could sign up – and if it had any recitals – and after doing some research, they reluctantly agreed. From my very first class, I loved it. I was small, but karate made me feel strong, I had friends there and it was the only sport I was actually good at. They taught us about confidence, discipline and most importantly, the importance of having a non-quitting spirit (perseverance for six-year-olds).

I was there so often that by the time I was nine, I was able to test for my black belt for the first time. These tests were with all of the schools in the tristate area, so we loaded the car with both parents, my sister, grandmas and the DVD of The Karate Kid to watch on the way, and we left Long Island to go to Paterson, New Jersey.

The black belt test had four components to it – basic techniques, self-defense, board breaking and kickboxing. Once you passed one part, you didn’t have to do it again, but you needed to pass board breaking in order to kickbox.

I got to the test and my heart sank – it was just a giant recital. There were hundreds of people there, bleachers were packed with people watching behind every ring waiting to see everyone who was testing perform. I was one of the youngest people at the test, and to say the least, nerves got the best of me and I didn’t pass a thing. Karate was something that came naturally to me, so my parents and Sensei (instructor) were nervous about how I would take the news. But when they came up to me, all I said was, “Okay, when’s the next test?”

I went back and trained harder, spent more hours there, and I knew I could pass this test. What I didn’t know, was that in fourth grade I’d get Scarlet Fever, which led to chronic hip pain that affected my ability to walk for days or up to weeks at a time. I missed a lot of school and that meant missing karate too. I went as often as I could, but I wasn’t able to give 100%.

Still, I took the black belt test two more times, the third time passing self-defense and basic techniques, but I still couldn’t break the boards. I always got too nervous, but I never got discouraged and just waited for the next test.

The hip pain continued, and so did the doctor’s appointments. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong, but they knew karate wasn’t helping. I was told to not only stop testing for my black belt, but to stop karate all together. Luckily, my parents didn’t listen to them and knew this wouldn’t stop me.

If anything, it made me want it more. I was going to prove to everyone that no matter what, I wasn’t giving up, I had non-quitting spirit.

Then came the fifth test. There were four different board breaks that you needed to do, two hands, two feet, and you got three tries at each. I went through the first three easily enough, but couldn’t get through the last board. The last break was a side kick, using the leg with the chronic hip pain. That was the first test where I got upset. I couldn’t figure out what held me back that day, but I knew one thing – this wasn’t going to happen again.

I went home and it was back to training. There was one instructor who did board breaking seminars at all of the different schools and my mom drove me up and down Long Island and through Manhattan to take his classes. After working with him this much, I was ready to finish this test.

It was April 18, 2004. My parents, sister, grandma and The Karate Kid DVD were loaded back into the car and we went back to Paterson, New Jersey for the sixth time.

I went to my ring and patiently waited for it to be my turn for board breaking. I went through my first three boards like butter. Now it was time for the fourth break. The same side kick using the leg with the chronic hip pain. I stayed with that leg because I didn’t have the balance to stand on it when it hurt, so I had to stick with it. And now that I was a little older, I had to break two boards at a time with this kick, even though the last time I couldn’t get through one.

This is the day that my shyness disappeared, and I broke out of my shell. In front of hundreds of people – and what felt like my entire family and karate school from home – I thought to myself, “just ask,” and went to the head of my ring and requested that the instructor I had followed across Long Island hold my boards for the final break. I was met by a very confused look, as this isn’t just something that people get to request. But luckily, he didn’t ask questions and he went to get the instructor.

The instructor happily came over, looked me in the eyes and said, “Let’s do this.”

I lined myself up and did three, slow practice kicks. I felt all the nerves I had felt at the five previous tests, but this time, I channeled them and used them for the strongest kick I’ve ever thrown, and I broke through both boards on the first try.

I was met by a thunder of applause from everyone watching, and for a second, I forgot there was still more to the test.

I put on my gear for kickboxing, walked into the ring, and quickly realized I would be fighting five black belts (one at a time) and I was by far the smallest in the ring.

I made it through my first few rounds, but in my last round I was facing a girl at least a head taller than me and she kept kicking me in the hip. I was frustrated, it hurt and I started to cry. The instructors stopped the match and asked if I wanted to stop my test. The voice of non-quitting spirit was yelling in my ears and I replied, “No, I want to keep fighting,” and we finished the round.

The round ended and I limped to the side, where one of my instructors from home helped me take off my gear. All of my friends and family were behind me outside of the ring. I was emotional and unsure if I fought hard enough to pass, dreading the thought of making my entire family come back here for a seventh time.

The three Sensei’s who were judging my ring walked up to each person testing one at a time. I watched them walk around and they finally got to me, smiled, and said, “Congratulations, you passed. You’re a black belt!”

My instructor pulled off my headgear, gave me a hug and pushed me through the crowd of my friends to the back where my parents were. My mom gave me a hug and told me how proud she was, and my dad grabbed me and picked me up over his head like a trophy. He was beaming up at me and I could see the crowd of people around me cheering me on and supporting me. I can easily say this was one of the coolest moments in my life. In fact, my mom made us recreate the moment in the parking lot so she could take a picture.

Throughout the ceremony of actually getting my belt, I couldn’t believe I did it. In fact, I checked several times to make sure my name was spelled right – I guess I started ZDing at a young age. From the six-year-old just trying to avoid dance recitals, to the hip pain that would knock me out for weeks on end (once I stopped eating gluten that went away), I never gave up. I kept, quite literally, fighting my way through to get what I wanted and what I knew I was capable of.

That’s followed me for the rest of my life. Whether it was getting into college, or throughout my journey at Prosek, I’ve never been afraid to fight for what I want, and I use every learning experience as a chance to work harder and get better at what I do to keep embodying that non-quitting spirit. 

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