NEW LONDON - Courtesy, integrity, self-control, perseverance and indomitable spirit. Those principles are what Master Instructor Earline Schulstad has her students repeat out loud every class.
They are the five tenets of taekwondo - a Korean martial art that Schulstad has been practicing since April of 1994. Twenty-five years and many rankings later, she is a certified fifth-degree black belt through the World Taekwondo Federation. She now uses her expertise to teach students ages 4 to adulthood the ancient martial art practice at New London-Spicer Middle School.
Moving through the ranks of taekwondo takes a lot of hard work, Schulstad said. Her title of "Master" was not just given to her - she had to earn it.
"It was a really difficult process and took a considerable amount of time and money," she said about earning her belts. "But, I'm very goal-oriented, and when I want to do something, I'll do it. Once I started moving through the levels, I gained self-confidence and just wanted to keep going."
Schulstad believes taekwondo offers more than just physical benefits. She said it can help with emotional strength too.
"When my son died in 2000, my martial arts training helped me get through that," she said. "I had the discipline to work through my grief - and that grief never goes away. You just learn how to find inner strength."
Teaching has provided Schulstad, who began instructing at NLS in 2001, a space to find solace in her everyday life. Having something to show up to and finding peace in her practice, she said, has been "instrumental" in her grieving process.
"You can go many different ways when you're grieving in a hard way. I can understand how easy it would be to go down a dark path. Taekwondo helped me stay right where I needed to be," she said. "And that's what I hope taekwondo can offer to my students."
The students in Schulstad's classes come from a variety of backgrounds, abilities and experiences. Through taekwondo, she said her students are able to build confidence and learn how to persevere. Schulstad said she helps in that process by "talking to them about things beyond" martial arts and remaining positive.
"You don't have to be a star athlete to be in taekwondo," she said. "Many of my students are working through their own obstacles, whether it's asthma or even struggling in school. I always try and look for a strong point. I want them to know that I'm there for them."
Isreal Elizondo has been practicing taekwondo with Schulstad since he was 4 years old. Now as a 14-year-old, he earned his second poom, which is a second-degree junior black belt. He said when he was younger, he "wasn't really physical" and was shy.
"I started taekwondo because I thought it'd be really cool to learn how to self-defend and stick up for other people when they were getting bullied," Elizondo said. "It helped me feel stronger and increased my confidence. I now even go up to people and say 'hi.'"
Elizondo also said the martial art program has helped with his school work as he can stay focused on tests more.
"I know how to not panic and stay calm in times of stress," Elizondo said. "I know taekwondo will help me throughout my life no matter the situation - whether it's school or if I need to defend myself."
Taekwondo is a journey for everyone. No matter the level, Schulstad believes it's about the process of getting there and not necessarily the outcome.
"Whether you're breaking boards or a brick, it gives you a feeling that whatever life brings your way - you can do it."