A little goes a long way

11 Feb

On Monday and Thursday evenings I conduct Taekwondo classes at an elementary school in a nearby town through their school district’s community ed program.  I teach a class of teeny kids, then one for older kids, and then a class for teens and adults.

After teaching the older kids, I had one of my black belts start the adult class and I went to get a drink down the hall. One of my youth students, “William,” a fourth grader who waits while his dad takes part in the adult class, came along with me. We encountered the school custodian on duty, “Tim,” and I introduced Tim to William, since William actually attends that particular school.

While Tim interacted with William, asking him questions about school and whether he knows his granddaughter, who also attends school there, William maintained direct focus on Tim and responded with a number of courteous answers, some “yes sirs” and “no sirs,” sometimes accompanied by a head nod.

When we returned to the gym, Tim came by a bit later and addressed William and me. Tim explained that he had been in the military in younger days, and it had not initially occurred to him how William was answering him. When it hit him, he had to come by to compliment William. He told William how no other kids he encounters answer with the same outward respect and courtesy, nor pay as close attention as had William. He told William that if he interacted with all adults in the same way, it would serve him well and far. Tim went so far as to say that if that level of respectful regard is all we taught our students, that alone is worth the price of the tuition.

I’m not completely sure if our use of “yes sir/maam” in class interactions is largely due to the general “martial” roots of our arts, or to the military involvement of our immediate Taekwondo forebears, or to the level of respect paid to instructors and elders in Taekwondo’s native land, Korea. Or, perhaps, if it is due to a combination of those factors or other factors.

Aside from expecting students to respond to instruction in this way, participation in a Taekwondo class pushes students of all ages and ilks to focus on what’s happening, pay attention to what their instructors say and to what their partner is doing. It pushes students to be, in word and action, in all instances, respectful and controlled. This applies even in interaction with other students or instructors whom they might not favor, and in instances of difficult, or sometimes contentious, training dynamics.

Two of Taekwondo’s five tenets are Courtesy and Self-Control. Courtesy is listed first of the five and is, I think, both an initial expectation and a required pre-requisite for everything else to work and for progress to happen. Self-Control, partially manifested in good focus, control of one’s body and mind, and in and proper restraint, goes hand in hand with Courtesy.

Living and learning these tenets, first in class and then having them take hold more broadly in one’s life — in public, at the office or the factory, at home — is part of the “magic” that happens through good marital arts training. There is a slow, drip by drip, character transformation that happens. But it all starts with a prompt “yes maam” or “yes sir.”  And, perhaps, even that little courtesy can go a long way.

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