Won Over By My Resident White Belt

IT was only a matter of time before my son approached me with the question eventually faced by most parents of little boys. He didn't know that I had long anticipated this moment and still had no idea of how I would or should respond.

''Dad,'' he said, standing before me, ''can I take karate lessons?''

''We'll see,'' I told him, seeking the last refuge of the indecisive. The thing was, at 9 I had been the toughest, most freewheeling kid on my block. When I thought back on some of the things I did, my son's request seemed tame by comparison. So why the hesitation?

I guess I blamed it in part on the media, with its explosion of productions involving the martial ''arts.'' I acknowledge that some of the most good-hearted and moral of the TV heroes use these gravity-defying maneuvers to right wrongs and implement justice. But the most malevolent also possess these powers: A bad guy is, well, pretty bad, but when he also knows karate he's really wicked. Add weaponry to the acrobatics and the effect is mesmerizing.

Of course, I knew that reputable martial-arts schools made a point of de-emphasizing the fighting aspects of their crafts and highlighting, instead, metaphysical benefits such as self-confidence, self-control, and respect for others. But to a child, these attributes are simply what must be swallowed, if one is to attain one's principal goal: the emulation of the characters seen on TV.

I decided to table my son's request for a month, like pouring hot tea into a saucer to cool it off before taking a small, tentative sip. If he still wanted karate after the waiting period, then we would see, we would see....

The month passed quickly enough. The 30th day dawned bright and clear. I went up to my son's room to rouse him from bed. ''Morning, Alyosha!'' I announced. To which he replied, ''Karate.''

Now a victim of my word, I took Alyosha to the local dojo to sit in on a lesson. There were about 12 boys, all around my son's age. All barefoot, dressed in white gis, girded by various-colored belts of rank, and standing shoulder to shoulder as they heeded instructions from their teacher or sensei, a young, black-belted man of about 24.

Alyosha and I sat on the sidelines. The other kids looked sweet enough. Faces like angels. Mindful of their sensei's every word. Just as I was contemplating their benign demeanors, they snapped into fighting stances and let out a throaty ''Kiai!'' that almost bowled me over.

I looked down at my son, who was transfixed. We watched as the boys kicked, twisted, punched, and spun about, all in fair synchrony, to the commands -- in Japanese -- of their sensei. By the end of the hour I had grown tolerant of this strange new culture, where not a single weapon had been brandished and everyone seemed to have come through the session intact -- smiling, in fact. My son was already on his feet, and I could feel my checkbook flapping in my vest pocket.

Within the week, Alyosha was clad in a starched white gi and white belt, standing in ranks with his new comrades, learning to listen and uttering his first monosyllables of Japanese. He was in heaven, and I was just one tuition payment poorer.

So why was I surprised when, one day, at the crack of dawn, I awoke to what sounded like an elephant stampede just beyond my bedroom door? When I stumbled into the living room, I found that Alyosha had pushed all the heavy furniture up against the walls to make a sort of arena for himself in which he could practice his newly learned skills. There he stood, in the middle of the floor, in his gi, gyrating, kicking, and twirling about to cover his flanks.

He was oblivious to my presence, but when I tried to interrupt he turned and ''Kiai'd!'' me back into my bedroom. Had I created a monster for only $20 a month?

As the weeks and months passed and Alyosha faithfully went off to the dojo, I found that the rhythms of his karate lessons had worked their ways almost seamlessly into our home life. Japanese words and expressions peppered my son's speech, and he frequently had his little karate buddies over to practice their katas, or patterned movements, in the living room.

The great test of my son's progress came after a couple of months, when he was invited by the sensei to test for promotion to the next rank. I soon learned that this was a time of gravity and import, when the student was expected not only to know the Japanese terminology relevant to his rank, but had to perform his kata in front of his fellow students and the stern visage of the sensei.

For someone who was so reluctant to have my son take karate lessons in the first place, I found myself preoccupied with his upcoming test. I mean, what if he failed? In Japanese culture, wasn't failure a deep humiliation?

I went to the test and took my seat with a gallery of other parents. We acknowledged one another with nods of the head, but this was a sacred occasion, so conversation was not an option.

The boys lined up in two rows facing their sensei, who invoked the first command. The testing had begun. In real harmony and with genuine grace, the candidates went through their movements in a manner reminiscent of a dance. The ''punches'' into surrounding air came off with finesse and precision, the product of hours and hours of practice.

By the time my son took center stage, I was flush with reassurance that all would go well. He took his position, announced himself to the sensei, bowed, and performed his kata almost flawlessly. Upon its completion, he bowed to his sensei and then, in a forgivable breach of dojo etiquette, flew into my arms for a hug.

I had made a halting but, in the end, good decision. We left the dojo that night, my son with his promotion ensured, and I with new feelings of self-confidence, self-control, and respect for the positive aspects of the culture into which my son had entered.

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