You Have to Move
You stand at the entrance to the room in the Rec center that will be your dojo. The floor is smooth and cool under your bare feet where you keep your gaze; the yells of kids horsing around before class sound sharp as they bounce off the walls. You can feel your heart pounding in your chest as you think about going inside. You have to go inside. You have to move. First, you have to look up, at this entirely new room, these entirely new people. This is karate. You are Graeme Anderson, 11 years old, and you have to move.
A lot of us are nervous about doing something new or meeting new people, especially as kids. But for some of us, things like eye contact or taking initiative in new surroundings is an incredible challenge. Graeme Anderson lives this challenge everyday, pushing himself to overcome limits to do what he loves.
Graeme is Graeme
When I met Graeme, I wondered if there was some developmental disability. I asked his parents questions that I thought left room for an explanation or a diagnosis which never came. I realized I wanted a label, an easy way to fit a person into a box so I could understand them without getting to know them. But Graeme is Graeme, with struggles just like we all have in one way or another. What sets him apart isn’t his obstacles or limitations–it’s his strength, his perseverance, the work he does to overcome things most of us take for granted.
Some things aren’t hard for him: he loves video games (notably Luigi’s Mansion) and acting out Minecraft with his siblings. His least favorite chore is laundry. When you meet him, the first thing you’ll notice is his shy, warm smile and bright brown eyes. He looks you in the eye for a just a moment at a time. He’s often slow to answer questions, giving careful thought to what he says, and doesn’t use a lot of words. When he’s excited, he shows it with his whole body, jumping a little and waving his arms, like when he talks about karate class–his enthusiasm is contagious.
The Hard Choice was Worth It
Graeme’s parents decided to homeschool him in kindergarten. It was the right choice for their family, with an older brother, Brodie, who didn’t enjoy traditional school and a three-year-old sister, Abbey, who liked her time with family. Graeme had difficulty early on in school and being home with more individual attention made sense. By the time Everlee, the youngest, came along, homeschooling was an integral part of their lives. The choice to leave work to stay home with the kids wasn’t made lightly. Rachel, Graeme’s mom, has a BA in Sociology and left her social work career. Brett, Graeme’s dad, was now bringing in the only income. To make this work, the family had to sacrifice. The hard choices were worth it, though, for the flexibility and sense of togetherness they gained.
A typical day varies, but Graeme focuses on reading (definitely not his favorite) and math at a relaxed pace. It’s important to Rachel and Brett that the kids have a strong base in the core subjects with plenty of time and space left to explore what really interests them. “If a kid can read,” Rachel says, “they can learn anything.” On Tuesdays, Graeme goes to Wilson Elementary for enrichment. He studies art, history, music, and gym, though with only four kids in his class, gym activities are somewhat limited.
That’s where karate comes in. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, Graeme takes Ryukyu Kempo karate classes at the NW Rec Center. After a little over a year he’s already a blue belt, which takes a significant amount of work and discipline to achieve. Graeme wanted to take karate since he was little but his parents thought it might be a passing phase–he loved SpongeBob, and especially the couple of episodes where SpongeBob does karate. With a tight budget, Rachel and Brett needed to seriously weigh Graeme’s interest against the cost. Most places around town are expensive and require a commitment. But Graeme kept asking and they finally tried out a class through the Cedar Rapids Recreation Department.
“I Can’t Hear You!”
When Graeme first stepped into class, he was frightened and quiet. “When I started karate, I didn’t really talk to people. Talking to people is hard,” Graeme says. “But then, when I started doing karate, I started talking to more people.” Part of that process was learning to ask for help when he needed it. When he was first learning the dojo kun (class rules) and the exercises, Rachel says, he had to ask his sensei for help. Over and over, just like the movements of karate, Graeme learned to overcome his fear and force himself to try (with a lot of encouragement from his mom). At first, he stood next to his Sensei with his head down until he was asked what he needed and muttered the name of technique. Slowly, he looked up more often. Then, asked in full sentences with no help from Mom. Now he goes up before and after most classes for extra practice, one of the things that makes him one of the highest ranking students in his class.
Now, he can teach and lead. He pauses at the doorway only to bow before entering. He can talk to other kids, helps if somebody needs a hand with kata (a series of movements). “Graeme is always willing to help,” Rachel says, but at home, “sometimes he needs guidance to know what to do or where to start.” In karate, Graeme is pretty sure of himself. “Kids look up to him,” Rachel says. “That’s not something he’s used to.”
At the last belt testing, Graeme was asked to warm up the class. He walked to the front of the gym, all eyes on him. His fists were clenched and his heart was pounding, but he took a deep breath and kept his head up. He led them through Exercise 1 which requires a kiai [kee-eye], or shout, at the end of a series of movements. Standing at the front of the gym, Graeme commanded, “I can’t hear you!”
“KIAI!” the class shouted back, voices ringing through the room.
Graeme enjoys speaking up and being listened to. “I kind of like telling people what to do,” Graeme said, smiling. “Hey Mom, buy me some ice cream,” he joked.
“I don’t think that’s gonna work,” Rachel said, laughing.
Graeme’s favorite dojo kun is number four: develop a respectful attitude. He takes it to heart, his mom says. “I get mad sometimes,” Graeme explains. “But I try to be respectful.” His mom describes a class where another student asked Graeme to show him how to do a move and got frustrated. Rachel heard the student say, “You’re not teaching me anything!” and Graeme replied, “I’m just trying to teach you.” No outburst, no anger–just respect.
What You See and What you Don’t
Although Graeme’s proud of his accomplishments in karate, he doesn’t brag or hold it over anyone. “It’s amazing nobody knows how good he is,” Rachel says. Even his grandparents don’t get to see him in action–Graeme keeps his demonstrations to class.
When asked what else he’s learned from karate, Graeme says he knows how to fight. “If my brother attacks me, I have techniques to fight him off,” Graeme explains.
His brother Brodie, 13, asks, “Why you gotta use me as an example?”
Graeme concedes. “Ok, you wouldn’t attack. But if you did…”
It’s clear through the gentle joking and affection the close-knit family displays that Graeme’s success is part of a bigger story. Each person has a clear role and supports each other to keep their busy lives humming along. Rachel is grateful for the time they get to spend together. She explains that when she’s with the kids, “there’s so much I get to see.” She’s there for big successes, like Graeme’s belt testing, and smaller ones, like watching him ask–all on his own–how to do an exercise or stand for a throw.
Brett and Rachel are thrilled to watch Graeme and their other kids grow and thrive despite struggles. Both parents are especially glad Graeme has found something he loves. Graeme recently invited a friend to karate, one who–like him–didn’t engage in much before this, and they enjoy working together. Both Rachel and Brett attend as many classes as possible and plan activities accordingly so the kids don’t miss out on anything. Family comes first and that shows.
“Help your kids find something they really like,” Brett says, “and support them so they can stick with it.”
You might not be able to tell by looking at Graeme that he could throw you to the ground. You also might not be able to tell that he works hard to talk to people, or that things many of us take for granted are hard-earned for him. One thing you can’t miss, though, is the light in his smile. That’s a kid who works hard, who knows what he loves, and celebrates his victories.
Story by Leslie Caton, Photos by Sarah Bozaan