These continue to be pretty clearly themed, and not random at all.
When I was about 13 or 14, we were given a bit of GCSE Art homework – design a new badge for the school. Just a bit of fun.
I forgot. Didn’t do it. During the chatter before the next class, I realised my omission and sketched a panicky oak tree or something. I went to school in Surrey, and I think our county tree is the oak, or… you know, there’s a connection there. Ground level was not at the bottom of the frame, it was about halfway along the vertical axis. I put a twisty root system down there, white roots on black soil, that mirrored the black branches in a white sky above.
It turns out that it was a genuine competition, and I won. The school badge, that everyone had to sew onto their jumpers, became my mirrored oak. Well, with some modifications from (presumably) a proper designer. I wish I could say that I got some money or something, but no. I just got one of the first badges, hot off the presses. I wish I could say that it’s the official badge to this day, 15 years later, but no. I don’t think it even lasted a year. I don’t know why.
I liked art, but I got bored easily. Painting my house, I immediately put in the small splashes of colour – flowerpots, door knocker, ornamentation – and just didn’t bother doing the actual house itself. All frills, no foundation.
One day, I bought a new brush for school. They start off with quite stiff bristles, so you need to soak them in water and work them around a little to get them pliable enough to use. I had seen something on TV, or in a book, that seemed cool, so I tried it out.
I had a fresh sheet of paper, and some black ink. I dipped the brush into the ink, then laid it sideways, flat, on the paper, and pushed a little. It left a small, streaky mark. I did the same again, immediately above that. Then again immediately above that. In this way, I created the trunk of a silver birch, and added some branches. Exactly as I had seen demonstrated. Satisfied that the brush was broken in, I showed my Dad. He’s a pretty good artist in his own right.
He was bowled over. So excited. “Look what Tom did! Look at this! This is wonderful, Tom, really!” It was great that he was so proud of me, but I couldn’t help but feel like a fraud. I really just copied something else someone did before me. Of course, that’s pretty much what we all do, every day. Right?
I had two memorable experiences grading in wing chun (my favourite martial art). The first was back in Bath, when I was in my mid-20s. I had been training there for two, maybe three years. I was one of the bigger guys in the class, and strong. My technique was poor, I was slow, but I could hit really, really hard.
I only graded once. It seems strange, in retrospect, but that’s how they did it. I was in a room with the sifu, his main student, and one other guy who was grading. He was my flatmate at the time, and it pains me to tell you that I don’t recall his name. We were of a very similar level. I might be slightly better at the form, for example, and he had the edge when it came to speed and flexibility.
We were so nervous. So, so nervous. The sifu (lovely guy called Scott, super gorgeous girlfriend who also trained with us) never smiled once. He asked us to run through various drills, tested our knowledge, and we did our best. I remember doing some kind of drill with my buddy, our sweaty arms slipping hopelessly off each other, and – trying to keep it light – remarking to the senior student: “Wow, it’s really hot in here!” He looked at me with pity, but a half-smile. “No, it’s not.”
At the end of the grading, we had our feedback. Stony-faced Scott didn’t smile, I don’t think, but his face certainly softened when he told us that “those were two of the best gradings I think I’ve ever seen.” We were overjoyed, but in the spirit of formality were keeping it buttoned up as much as possible.
The second – the second – we left that room, we were physically leaping around, punching the air, high fiving, hugging, the works. Trying not to be too loud, and probably failing.
One of the proudest moments of my life.
The other grading was a little different.
Cambridge. Last year, maybe? Fairly recent. Twelve student grades in total, and you take a grading every three to four months. The first three are fairly straightforward, but of course it’s important to nail the fundamentals.
The fourth grade is a big jump up in difficulty, and combines every theory, application, movement and technique from the first three grades – but now to a significantly higher standard.
Again, I was very nervous. I don’t do well in high pressure situations, but a certain part of that is plausibly due to the fact that I keep telling myself that I don’t do well in high pressure situations.
Again, I was grading with a buddy. Someone of about my level. Someone with whom I had a bit of a friendly rivalry. Josh.
Now, it’s worth noting that no-one ever passes grade 4 in a single evening. You tick off as much of the syllabus as possible, then continue next time. In my arrogance, I had already decided that I would be the exception to that rule. This was my story, and I was the hero. I’m good at this stuff. I know I am. I can tell. I can do this. I can do it!
I got stuck on a bit of footwork. So stuck. I got it wrong in every way I could, then I invented new ways to get it wrong that I had never done before. The teacher (Ross) would come around to me, observe, tell me to keep trying, and move on.
Josh sailed through the footwork, and moved onto other stuff. Stuff I knew I could do to a high level. But not until I got the footwork out of the way.
He kept going, and going. I kept trying to organise my feet.
He made it all the way to the self-defense section. This sounds scary, but is actually okay. You are surrounded by a circle of relatively senior students, and they take turns rushing in and attacking you with one of a few types of strike or grab. You deal with it as best you can, using everything you know. I never saw a single person ever fail this bit. It’s exciting, and exhausting, and tense, but it’s really an exciting sign that you have basically finished that grading.
He did it. He lived the hero’s story, and nailed grade 4 in one night. He deserved it – he’s very good.
I am just as good. But on the night, I bottled it. I failed. I think I shed a few tears later that evening at home, as stupid as that might sound now. I built up this narrative in my mind, really thought I could do it, and… crumbled.
I finished it the next time with no problems. I did well. I should be proud. But even though I should look at the positives, and focus on my own journey rather than someone else’s, it still stings a little. I wanted it so much. Wanted to be special, and celebrated. Wanted that spike of respect.
But it’s okay. Life rarely unfolds in a neat or logical manner.