Sunday, November 11, 2012

They Call Me Sa Bum Nim (Sensei, or Teacher)

I’m sitting in a conference room at work last week on the 38th floor of the tallest building in Pittsburgh with several coworkers and my manager, when in walks a vendor to do a sales pitch. As it turns out the sales rep is one of my martial arts students.

He immediately walks over to me and shakes my hand and says, “I didn’t know you would be here Sa Bum Nim.” The term Sa Bum Nim, in our art is the name given to Master Black Belts, almost all of whom are also teachers. In pop-culture and other martial arts the term Sensei is popularly used.

“I didn’t know you would be here, Sa Bum Nim.” I replied, “please call me Eric.” He was clearly uncertain as what to do, so I went on, “My manager calls me Eric, my coworkers call me Eric, the woman in the deli calls me Eric, as do all my employees. Please, call me Eric.”

I shared this with some of my martial arts colleagues, and received a range of responses that included, “you should not have done that, you are his teacher.”

I once had my doctor as a student. I frequently called him Doctor in class, but also, at times, would use his first name, Larry, if I was offering personal instruction about his technique. In medical situations, though, I always used the formal title.

In other words, context matters. Is this not the very point we drive home to our students all the time? Do we not teach that judgement, context, and situational awareness is as important as any physical skill?

I feel no loss of respect when a student addresses me as something other than Sa Bum Nim when we are in a venue that clearly changes the rules of engagement. I once hired, as an Information Management trainee, a training partner. At work we were just Eric and Keith; in the Do jang we used our martial arts designations.

This, of course, is a rational behavior set for adults. Children are different. I am not their playmate. An adult assumes a level of responsibility around any and all children. If I see a young, total stranger playing in the street as a car approaches, I am going to act - and I do not expect to have a debate based on the relative merits of their rights to play where they want. If need be, I will pick them up and carry them out of harms way.

They can call me Sa Bum Nim.

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