A Tale of Five Masters

by Shannon Bond
A fifth-grade teacher, principal I.T. consultant, regulatory compliance manager, software developer, and a construction worker walk into…a DoJang? That’s the setup, but what’s the punchline? It turns out these five professionals take punchlines to the extreme. Along with the punching, they take kicking, board breaking, and teaching seriously because they all have one thing in common: they have attained the honored title of Taekwondo Master. What else do they have in common? They have all been training for about twelve years and were among Master Lauren Phillips’ first students at Advantage Martial Arts in Kearney, Missouri.
“I think it’s really cool that we helped build this community. We never had coaches when we were coming up. It was solely Master Phillips, and we are now in that role, helping build that community,” says Cody Wilkerson, who was recently promoted to master. Tina Payne, another recently promoted master, says, “I feel privileged that we learned from Master Phillips.”

Gathered in a circle to discuss their martial arts journey, days after the grueling fourth-degree blackbelt test, sits Wilkerson, the fifth-grade teacher; Tina Payne, the regulatory compliance officer; Christine Adcock, the principal I.T. consultant; Adam Miller, the software developer; and his son, Drew Miller, the young construction worker. They chuckle in unison and explain that right before the test, it hit them; they were really going to test for fourth-degree blackbelt, which is master in the Kukkiwon Taekwondo system. Master Phillips and her master and long-time teacher and mentor administered the test.

What was the test like?

“We had no idea what he was going to ask us so we’re sitting there trying to prepare for every possibility. Initially, we thought maybe we’d have to do everything in Korean. I know I was super nervous and trying to make sure I had everything possibly covered,” Master Adam Miller says.

Before the test started, the room was filled with nervous energy, each of them glancing to the front of the room, wondering what would come first. Chatting with each other and family members, they waited. As Master Phillips walked into the room, the nervous energy built, and the test began with intense exercises. The goal was to see how each of them performed under pressure (and exhausted). After the sit-ups, pushups, and jumping jacks came the bag work. Punches and kicks as accurately as possible in a set timeframe. Lower-ranked black belts lined the side of the mat, rushing in to hold pads or perform whatever other tasks were necessary. After the exercises, the five hopefuls stood, sweat dripping, gasping for breath, in front of a table where Master Phillips and her mentor sat, taking notes.

They quietly conferred throughout the test and called out each exercise, technique, or question. Each would-be master had to explain what Taekwondo meant to them and their earliest memories of it. Then, it was on to the techniques, weapons, board breaks, concrete breaks, sparring, grappling, and forms (calling out each move in Korean). Each trial happened one after the other until all the nervous energy morphed into dogged determination. Opposite the black belt helpers, across the mat, sat family and friends, watching and cheering their loved ones as they pressed through each trial. From trial to trial, from difficult to nearly impossible, grit and determination settled into each would-be master’s eye.

But why would anyone put themselves through such an ordeal? Adam explains that early in life, he knew what his passions were. Martial arts and writing software. As a kid, he practiced Kung Fu for a few years, but when his instructor left for the first Gulf War, he didn’t continue. Years later, in his 30s, Adam signed his middle son Drew up with Master Phillips, who had just formed her school. “He started, and I was watching from the sideline and figured I might as well jump in and do it with him. There was a time in my color belt days when I was catching up to him; I was coming five nights a week and staying from beginner class through adult class.”

Drew explains that it was cool because he got to stay for the adult class and learn weapons at a younger age. “Master Phillips even came up with a name for a move just to make it sound cool for me as a little kid. The Spinning Dragon. It was where you spin the bow staff and spin around while you’re spinning it.”

Drew, now 18, started training when he was about six. It was easier to stay motivated in the early days before he had to balance a job that often takes him out of the area. But he stuck with it, in large part because of the four other newly minted masters sitting beside him. He glances at each of them, sitting in a semi-circle, and explains, “The whole black belt family and Master Phillips, that’s what has kept me motivated for so long, but if I had to choose four specific people, the most motivation I’ve gotten is from these four right here.” And now that he’s attained master, which feels surreal for him at such a young age, one of his goals is to maybe open his own school. Of course, his father will be right there beside him.

“My goal is to lead a few more classes so I get more comfortable being out front. If Drew decides to open a school, we can do it together. I don’t think I’d be able to quit my day job, but I’d be supporting him and helping him do it.” It’s on the table, Wilkerson agrees, but opening a martial arts school is no easy task and takes preparation and hard work. Along with the effort, it also takes coordination with their teacher, Master Phillips, just as she worked with hers, 12 years ago.

“I love teaching, but it does progressively become more difficult with all the extra things I have to do,” Wilkerson says about his day job. “And I get evaluated about every month. Here, there is curriculum, but it’s wholeheartedly teaching.” Wilkerson started Taekwondo training at 16 and lights up when he talks about teaching. But in the early days, he explains, he simply loved watching Taekwondo and martial arts movies. “I got my Eagle Scout and then needed something else to do; that’s how I started, but once I got my blackbelt, I kept coming. Master Phillips is this icon, and you always want to be exactly how she is, and I think it was my first-degree test when I realized, ‘I’m going to be a fourth-degree master.’”

Master Christine Adcock nods and adds that she cannot imagine not training. “If I stopped, I’d probably have to be physically incapacitated.” Her journey began much like Master Payne’s and Adam Miller’s. Each of them needed something to do with their kids. And now, after 12 years, she sees it as something to do in her retirement. It’s also part of your identity, she explains. “I’ve been through a couple layoffs with jobs and stuff, and this is something that provided nice continuity. It’s a lifestyle. It becomes who you are.”

“When my kids were young,” Master Payne adds, “I realized I needed to have something that wasn’t just about my kids. If you make it all about your kids, when they grow up, and they’re gone, you’re not going to know what to do with yourself. So, I made the decision to do things I enjoy that involve my kids, but I can do it without them.” And, she says with a twinkle in her eye, when training with her kids, she doesn’t have to be in charge. Master Phillips is. They learn together as a family, watching each other struggle and prevail. Now that she’s a master, she’s also entertained the thought of opening her own school but isn’t sure yet.

“The house of Payne!” Master Drew Miller chimes in immediately. The close-knit group erupts into laughter. Through the years and their connection to each other, Taekwondo has given each of them a release and a way of life outside of the 9 to 5. In their own way, each explains that walking through the door of the school allows them to let go of the day’s problems, the meetings, the teams, and the work projects. And now, as masters, they get to make their own way, learn what they want, and pass on that knowledge to the next generation.

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