Thank you, sir!

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A dozen students bowed to the flag, then turned and bowed again to their instructor, shouting, “Thank you, sir!” Every taekwondo class ends in this manner.

But this time, my son’s instructor walked purposefully over and shook my hand. “When will I see you on the mat with other adults?” He smiled. “I can tell you’re interested. I can see it in your eyes.”

This instructor doesn’t miss much, but he did misinterpret my focused attention on that particular workout. While I have no desire to learn taekwondo, I profess a deep appreciation for what I saw being taught to the students.

It’s hard to be a kid in today’s culture. It’s true that children have advantages over previous generations. Technology has afforded opportunities never before imagined. With gains in racial and gender equity, more children and youth are free to be their true selves.

But according to a study by scholars at the universities of Florida and Denver, 60% of parents with children aged 14 to 18 reported cyberbullying in 2020, which is up from 32% in 2007. Following the COVID-19 pandemic and social isolation, numerous studies have shown that children’s mental health has suffered, including lowered self-esteem. The reasons for these struggles are multifaceted; the problems are complex.

And yet, I have seen how part of a healthy solution may be as simple as breaking a wooden board.

My son wanted to take taekwondo so that he could kick a board in two. Having no previous experience with martial arts, I tried to manage his expectations, assuming that splitting anything with your body was an advanced technique and thus required time to learn.

On his second day of class, the instructor called my son to the front of the room, then my boy broke a board in half with his fist! My son was wearing a face mask, but I could tell by his eyes that he grinned from ear to ear!

Every student has this affirming experience on the second day of class, yet taekwondo is about much more than breaking boards. As is true of any sport, skills do not come quickly or easily.

The value of athletic competition is not new to me, especially lessons of perseverance and commitment. I grew up playing basketball and baseball, which had led me to believe that such intangible values were learned only through team sports.

The afternoon in which the instructor misread the look in my eyes, I had just watched a student struggle through a particular drill. It was clear from where I sat that this child was frustrated and had wanted to quit. The instructor pushed him but without shaming him in front of the others. Instead, the others in the class encouraged their fellow student to finish. When the struggling student finally did, the applause was just as loud as when others broke their first boards. This child wore an unmistakable look of pride.

Taekwondo will remain my son’s thing, not mine. But I add my “Thank you, sir” out of deep respect for adults who inspire young people to learn and, along the way, teach them even more about themselves.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church. His newly-published book is a collection of his columns for the Chatham News + Record titled “Hope Matters: Churchless Sermons.”

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