The other day, another parent said, "We love you, Ms. Cathy."
I’ve heard it before. In fact, I get that sentiment a lot. And yet I’m still surprised. I’ve practiced Taekwondo for 19 years now (11 years teaching), and I know that I’ve done a lot of good for others, especially children. Still, I'm always on guard, trying to strike a healthy balance between good self-esteem and humility. (Trust me: My ego can balloon with the best of them.)
Parents and students do love me and the work that I do, and they show me and tell me in a myriad ways.
Families bring me cookies and cards throughout the year. During the winter holiday season, they shower me with gift certificates to Starbucks and Barnes & Noble. Students write me Valentine’s Day poems and give me lollipops on their birthdays. Some Tiny Texans run up and wrap their arms around my dobok pant legs, squeezing out a big hug. One time, an anonymous donor left an envelope containing $200 cash on my office desk. It’s rare that a parent comes up and gives me a big, strong bear hug and a kiss on the cheek, but that’s happened too. (That one may always surprise me.)
These moments of thanksgiving have happened so often that you’d think I would have gotten used to them by now. After all, I’m an empowering teacher who invests a lot of energy in inspiring others, especially my young students. What goes around comes around, eh? Yet the love and acts of kindness that my students and parents show me always take my breath away. I’m genuinely touched. And on many levels, it’s difficult to take in all that love.
It’s always been easier for me to be the compliment giver than the receiver, to Aikido-deflect a nice sentiment. It’s also always been easier for me to believe a negative statement about myself rather than a positive one.
After all these years of powerful training, I’m slightly baffled that I still have much to learn about the art of building and maintaining self-confidence and self-esteem amid humility.
I continue to try, though. If I want my students to believe all the encouraging words I say to them, then I have to be able to let those messages in myself—to not discount sweet words that parents and students often convey.
Last week at the YMCA, I got more than my fair share of practice in the art of taking compliments. Many parents were excited about the results of my latest character-building homework assignment.
To earn a black stripe on their belt, students were encouraged to do something nice for their parents—take out the trash, set the table for dinner, clear the table after dinner, clean their room, put away their toys—without their parents either knowing about it or asking them to do it.
“You can do anything,” I told students in my Tiny Texans and Youth Beginner’s class earlier in the week, “ANYTHING! Just don’t tell your parents. It has to be a surprise! And if they ask you to do that task, it’s too late. It doesn’t count. So if your parents are always reminding you to brush your teeth before bed, brush your teeth RIGHT AFTER DINNER! Beat them to it!”
On Thursday, 3-year-old Izzie—a meek and long, blond-haired Cinderella wannabe—was the first to report her progress.
“Ms. Cathy,” the Tiny Texan squeaked, “I strapped myself into my car seat without mommy’s help.”
“WOW!” I said, looking over at her parents. Izzie’s mom nodded in affirmation. “I’ll bet that makes your parents very happy because they know you’ll stay safe in the car.”
Izzie nodded silently. Her mom smiled wide, pride beaming from her face.
For successfully completing her character homework, Izzie received a black stripe on her white belt. Now Izzie was smiling as wide as her mom. As I cut the electrical tape off and pressed its end firmly to Izzie’s belt, I gave her some encouraging words.
“You’re smart,” I began. “Strapping yourself into your car seat is a very important task. It will help your parents know that you’re riding safe, and the more you do little things like this to keep yourself safe, the more your mommy and daddy will trust you in the future to take on more big-girl tasks.
“So keep up the good work!”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Izzie said softly with a shy smile. Her mom mouthed a silent “thank you.” I nodded approvingly and mouthed an equally silent “you’re welcome.”
In the next class, Ricky, a petite, 6-year-old yellow-stripe white belt, tugged on my dobok sleeve. He had something important to tell me about his homework assignment.
“Ms. Cathy,” he said, “I went to bed without my parents telling me to.”
“That’s fabulous!” I said, as I gave him a high-five palm slap. “I bet your parents appreciated that, huh?”
“Oh, yeah!” said his mom, who was standing nearby.
“I’m very proud of you,” I said to Ricky. “Do you know why?”
“No, ma’am,” he said.
“You’re helping your parents. They’re not trying to be mean to you when they tell you that it’s time for bed. You see, they know your body needs a certain number of hours of sleep so that you can grow. When your body gets lots of rest, you’ll grow big, tall, and strong!”
Ricky’s eyes grew wide.
“Keep up the great work, son,” I said, wrapping a black stripe around his white belt. “If you keep going to bed when you’re supposed to without complaint and you keep getting all the rest you need, pretty soon you’ll be taller than me!”
“Yes, ma’am!” Ricky said, grinning.
“And then I won’t want to spar you anymore because you’ll be so strong that you’ll kick me into next week.”
Ricky smiled wider.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said.
“Comsah hamnidah,” I said in Korean, and then in English, “Thank you!”
Ricky’s mom reached out her hand to shake. “Thank you for all you do,” she said. “You’re teaching our kids so many great lessons. It’s more than Taekwondo.”
I tried to take it in.
“You’re welcome.” I finally said.
As Ricky and his mom turned to go, I noticed another parent, the mother of a 6-year-old white belt, who had been patiently waiting nearby. She had a serious look on her face. Right or wrong, I immediately thought, "Oh no, what'd I do?"
“I don’t know if you realize how important you are,” she began. I sighed a bit on the inside. “You’re surrounded by angels. I know you don’t really know me very well, but I have to tell you that it is so refreshing to find a teacher like you. We are all so grateful. You are very special, and we love what you do for our kids.”
I’ve heard this before too (yes, even the part about being surrounded by angels). But holy tamale, I’ve never known what to say. Or do you say anything?
I stood there and practiced receiving love.
“Thank you,” I said simply. “Thank you for your kind words. I really appreciate your support.”