Returning, Restarting, Reframing

I am thinking about getting back into martial arts. I am also thinking about going back to school. These two things are strongly related in my mind.

I have a black belt in a martial art that doesn’t really exist anymore; it was a single-school system, and the instructor isn’t teaching it anymore, and neither are any of the other black belts who had been teaching there (including me). Part of what this means is that I can’t maintain the same rank when I start at another school. The skill I built up while earning that black belt is still real (if a bit rusty right now), but the “credential” doesn’t really apply anywhere else.

Now, that’s totally fine with me. I’ve been a white belt (beginner) again twice since earning that black belt — and before that point, I had been a white belt several times over as I switched styles. I always let new instructors know about my previous experience — it’s usually something they ask of new students — but I make it clear that I’m not expecting to start anywhere but at the beginning. Knowing about my previous experience is helpful to them, because it explains why I often pick up techniques very quickly (if they’re similar to what I’ve done before), but also explains why there might be small details that will take some time to retrain (if a technique in the new style is close-but-not-quite-identical to a technique in the older style).

I had one teacher who was really weird about it, though. He actually offered to let me retain my black belt, but it made no sense to me since I didn’t know his curriculum. The rank would not have been an accurate representation of my skill in that style. So he let me learn at a bit of an accelerated pace instead — but constantly pointed out to the other students around my current rank that I was “really” a black belt, and that’s why I was learning faster. It made things awkward, and I think it gave the impression that I was somehow bragging, even though I was never the one to bring it up.

So I’m looking at starting a new style yet again, at a small school not far from my house. The instructor has a good reputation, and the style — though not one I’ve been particularly drawn to in the past — shares a lot of elements with past arts I’ve studied. (And I’ve definitely found that specific style matters much less than having a good instructor.) But I don’t know how this past-experience thing is going to play out this time, so it makes me a little nervous.

The going-back-to-school impulse carries some similar issues, as it happens. I have a bachelor’s degree already, so I think most people would be looking at graduate school programs as the next step. But I don’t think that’s the right step for me, and it’s similar to how I didn’t feel right coming into a new martial art and wearing the black belt from my old one. That’s because I want to start studying a completely different field, and to me it seems like studying something at a master’s level kind of implies that you’ve trained up to that level in that field (or a related one).

I know many people do change fields between their undergraduate and graduate work, so it’s not impossible. But when I look at master’s degree programs in the field I’m interested in (I’m going to be vague for now and write about it in more detail later), it looks like there’s a lot of ground work that I haven’t done. I could do that coursework first, I suppose, but to me it makes more sense to start at the beginning.

There’s also the question of the cost of education, and for me that includes the logistical costs of getting to classes while also continuing to work — so the availability of programs within a close driving radius was a big factor. And frankly, I’m really not sure whether this area of study is going to give me what I need for the plans I have, so starting small seems to make more sense, too.

So what I have come up with is the idea of working toward an associate’s degree at my local community college, as a way of getting my feet wet. That way I’ll get a lot of preliminary exposure to this new field, and afterwards I’ll have a basis for transferring into a bachelor’s degree (or combo bachelor’s/master’s degree) program. It’s close, it’s affordable, and the program I’m looking at has a lot of cool classes.

But I’m curious as to how the previous-experience question will play out there, as well. And not just at the school, but among my family and friends. Most people seem to think of education as a ladder of sorts, with the only valid path being further “up.” They would see my plan as a major step backward — but I look at it as a natural process of starting over as a white belt again. I still acknowledge the strengths that my past training has given me (and I will take advantage of course credits that can be transferred), but I am fine with being a beginner again in a new field.

I’ll be writing more about both of these (potential) new starts in the future. But I thought it was interesting how clearly related they seem to me, and I wonder how my growing new understanding of myself as autistic will affect how I proceed.