Yesterday, I embarked on that journey.
I'd been a nervous wreck ever since shihan called me aside at the end of Tuesday's class and told me that, if I decided I was ready, he'd put me up for the grading. Was I ready? I wasn't sure. But I reckoned I was as ready as I'd ever be.
The rest of the week went too fast, yet dragged. At last, there I was, standing in a school sports hall in Sidcup in my gi. Then we were told to line up, we were bowing in, and it had begun.
Senior gradings are attended by red belts and up. They're longer than the public gradings for white to blue belts. We are treated to a punishing warmup and tested on our punches, kicks and blocks, which lasts as long as a regular class, and only then go on to demonstrate the kata, a long sequence of memorised moves.
We go through every kata, from the very first white belt to yellow belt taikyoku shodan, until we reach the one for our particular grade, which in my case is seipai. Concentrating only on your grade kata to the detriment of the others is a bad idea; you are expected to give your all to all of them, and to do them significantly better than lower grades can manage.
The final part of the grading is kumite, sparring. I was dreading this; at lower levels you can partner up with someone you know, or a child, and take it a bit easy, but if you're trying for black belt the instructors will pick you out and find out how much you really want it. I got off reasonably lightly, though I did have to face an enormous sensei who stood in front of me going "Hit me! Go on! You're so timid! You're like a teddy-bear!" - which is exactly the kind of thing that makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry.
When we finished, I knew that my technique might improve, but that if I failed to grade because I wasn't fit enough, or aggressive enough, or sufficiently hard-working, I never would grade, because I had given everything I'd got.
After a cooldown and the bowing out, we sat while the results were read, starting with the red belts and going up. There were only two of us going for shodan-ho, so when the first name had been called and I saw my instructor reach behind him to pick up a second black belt, I knew I'd succeeded. But I only believed it when my name was called and I was bowing, discarding my brown belt, and tying the new one with shaking hands.
Several students I've known and trained with for years were also grading: the other new shodan-ho (we kept perfect time with each other), one grading to first dan, and the others to second or first kyu brown belt. We all succeeded, because our shihan trains us well and doesn't put us up for grading until we're good and ready. There were photos and handshakes and sweaty hugs, and I realised how attached I am to these people I see once a week, under very specific circumstances and never in their normal clothes.
It was early 2002 when I started going to karate. I had no idea I'd keep it up this long, much less reach this level. (It's possible to reach black belt in seven years. I'm not actually very good at karate.) It's been a stabilising influence in my life, giving structure to my week and an outlet to everyday frustrations.
Technically, shodan-ho is a provisional grade, a placeholder until that time at least a year in the future when I have to go through it all again to grade to first dan. But I get to wear a black belt. I'll take it.