Eric is running to his third period class, weaving between throngs of students.
He sees me. He halts. He stands squarely in front of me.
He bows deeply.
“Anyong haseyo sunsengnim,” he says with perfect Korean pronunciation. Good day, honorable teacher.
“Anyong haseyo, hakseng,” I reply. Good day, honorable student.*
He grins and walks to class.
This happens whenever I see Eric, a 12th grade student. This ritual is an exchange of deep respect between the two of us. Eric had a tendency to argue and disengage when he was younger. When he bows, he is able to show the shining, respectful leader that is at his core, and in doing so, he allows me to be a true “sunsengnum”: an honorable teacher.
The other day, he showed me his report card and tried to hide his smile, saying he was disappointed with his Earth Science grade. I read it: all grades above 90, with a 74 in Earth Science. A few years ago, a report card like this was unheard of for Eric.
Eric learned this from our school’s Korean language program and our taekwondo program.** I used to think these programs were simply fun, interesting opportunities for our students to learn about another culture.
Now, I know they teach something much deeper. They teach the value of being in synch with a group of other people, of showing respect through your actions. They teach gratefulness. In taekwondo, students not only shout, “I can do it, sir!” and “Yes maam!” to their instructors; they also shout, “Thank you teachers! Thank you mom! Thank you dad!” Teaching students to thank their parents or teachers could potentially skyrocket graduation rates: if you’re grateful to your parents and teachers, you’ll want to do everything to make them proud and make them right that you are capable of success.
I asked Eric why he bows. He explained that a year ago, he saw a YouTube video that inspired him to show respect and take responsibility for himself. Shortly after that, he started to focus, and on his own, he decided to start bowing .
“It’s like a salute,” Eric told me. “It’s respect. Every time I do it, I feel great.”
And so do I.
*I had the privilege of teaching English at Woosong University in Daejon, South Korea from 2004-2005. Studying Korean became a passion of mine.
** Since our school began in 2011, we have partnered with the excellent Korea Taekwondo, who have offered classes to enrich our P.E. program. They have also given our students opportunities in the form of taekwondo study scholarships and apprenticeships.
Eric Zapata is 18 and a 12th grade student at the High School of Language and Innovation. He gave permission for his real name to be used in this blog.
Mikyong Cho started our Korean language program in 2011 as one of the founding teachers of our school. Her dedication and passion for teaching Korean language and culture is one of the gems of our school.
Photo credit: Julie Nariman