LAKEVIEW — Zachary Berman was no-nonsense as he spoke to a girl in his tae kwon do class before they prepared to spar.
"Focus," he said. "Be serious."
As the only black belt in the small Korean martial arts class of both children and adults at The Peace School, 3121 N. Lincoln Ave., Zak takes some responsibility to help others with less experience. It's a newfound duty that he handles well — especially considering he is only 9 years old.
In fact, Zak is the youngest person to ever earn a black belt in tae kwon do in The Peace School's 41 years.
The Lincoln Park resident started at age 6, at an after-school program run by Peace at the Oscar Mayer Magnet School, 2250 N. Clifton Ave.
To get to the black belt, he had to attend 90 minute classes at least three times a week, every week, in addition to passing requisite tests. Three years is the fastest anybody can get to a black belt, said Caitlin Watkins, a fellow member of the school.
He earned the black belt last month after taking a test with the school that judged his tae kwan do form, yoga and meditation skills.
Getting that to that point, Zak said, was his biggest goal when he started as a third-grader.
"I knew it was going to take me a couple years," he said. "I still wanted to be the youngest black belt at The Peace School, ever since someone told me I could be."
Zak attends The Peace School's traditional tae kwon do class with his sister Ava, 7, and their mother Sol, 41. Ava is now a second-degree green belt, while Sol is a second-degree brown belt, two tests away from black.
For the Berman family, attending tae kwan do class means more than just exercise. Athletics matter — Sol used to be a gymnast and her husband Marty, 48, was a Division I swimmer in college — but the family bonding and discipline matters just as much, Sol said.
Marty, who works in digital media sales, already coaches swimming for the kids. Sol wanted an activity she could do with her children, too, and The Peace School's class allows adults to train with their offspring.
And the regiment of attending class regularly was discipline she hoped to instill in her children. In addition to the martial arts and one-on-one sparring, the classes and belt tests include yoga and meditation requirements.
"When you're an athlete, it's not just winning the competition," said Sol, who works as a mathematics economist. "It's everything you have to go through to get to that point. Some days you weigh 1,000 pounds but you still have to train."
It wasn't always easy to attend class. Class is right after school, and Zak and Ava often did their homework in the car ride up to Peace. Other days, Zak has simply been tired; with golf, basketball, chess and tae kwon do, the 9-year-old has a full schedule.
"We even go to tae kwon do when we don't feel good," Zak said. "Some days, we're just tired out of our minds."
Then last year, Ava fell off a swing and got a terrible concussion, causing missed school and stress for the whole family. Still, the Berman family continued to attend classes and taking the belt tests, sometimes attending more than one class a day in order to make up for lost time.
"Some tests, we reached them, and I feel like it has been by magic," Sol said.
But Zak has had fun. The discipline and challenge of the forms is fun, he said.
The school itself, which is run completely by volunteers, does not set belt goals for students, said Gary Garrett, 58, Zak's instructor. Even getting to black belt "is just the beginning," Garrett said. Black belts also have different levels, and it takes years to get to the second one.
Even though Zak and his Peace School classmates are young, The Peace School treats them as young adults as they gain more knowledge.
"Our strive is for them to be more than just kids," Garrett said. "That's what the art demands."
Zak's next goal: to become a fourth- or fifth-degree black belt, which could take five to six years. And after that, who knows? Maybe kung fu or karate or judo, Zak said.
"I'm not going to do it just a little bit," Zak said. "I'm going to do it continuously. I'm pretty much not going to stop."