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In fifth grade, we made candles in Mr. Tenney's class, tying a white string on a yellow Number 2 pencil and taking turns to dip the string into a huge vat of simmering wax at the back of the classroom. We did this over several days, resting the pencils on metal racks so the wax could cool and later be re-dipped. I watched my maroon-colored candle slowly get thicker as the days passed. The finished product came out crooked, shaped more like an hour glass that curved in at the middle. Throughout the project, I learned to refine my candle-making skills, to dip quickly and pull the string straight back up instead of letting it sit in the boiling wax. I learned to dip lower and lower on the string as the girth of the candle grew to create a pointed tip at the top of the candle for easy lighting. And I learned that patience eventually yields a product I could be proud of, and could use.
In class, training partners I've practiced with in the past, as well as newer students, tell me, "You're getting stronger," or, "I think you're strong." My first reaction has always been to look at them with this shocked expression on my face. Growing up, I had never been strong. I had inherited my mother's small frame, her petite height, her thin bone structure. My grandpa used to observe, "You eat like a kitten--so little, small bites!" My grandma used to refer to my skinny arms as "frail chicken wings." During training, I thought the only thing I had going for me was my speed and my stubborn endurance; I never thought I had strength. So it surprises me to realize that my grip is getting stronger, my attacks more committed, my pins more convincing. That I am learning to use the power in my hips, putting my feet in the right places, trusting myself enough to not look at my partner to make sure I've got him or her in the right position.
The months pass. The dojo turns from sweltering-hot to bitingly-cold to a mild, comfortable temperature with the spring sun slanting in just right from the windows overhead. The moon waxes, growing slivers of layers until it becomes round and full, big and noticeable. Like the layers of my candle, once unrecognizable, then transforming into something useful. I am waxing, refining my techniques--building strength slowly, gaining confidence gradually, until one day I am able to see things that weren't there before.