Martial arts may be key to reaching today's kids

November 30, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

It was a remarkable sight for these times.

Sitting in groups on the gymnasium floor were about 80 children ages 6 to 8.

As children that age are inclined to do, most were chattering, laughing, elbowing, gawking and generally creating a head-pounding racket.

Then a muscular man walked onto the floor and, in a voice that was firm but not loud, he said only one word.

"Quiet."

It was if he had plucked out their little tongues. They suddenly sat straight and looked at him like good bird dogs eager for a command.

This mass personality change caused excited murmuring among the parents, relatives and friends who were crowded into the gym's bleachers.

One mother said: "Unbelievable. I'd have to stuff a dishrag in his mouth to make him that quiet."

"It wouldn't work," her husband said. "I've tried it."

Just then, the muscular man turned and asked the spectators for silence. Their talking, he said, would disturb the children. Everybody shut up and the program began.

It was an exhibition and competition by students and teachers from a karate school. The man and all the kids were barefoot and wearing loose white pants and blouses, with belts of various colors showing what stage of skill they had reached.

The teacher's belt was black. Maybe that was why the kids clammed up.

Whatever the reason, it made a convert out of me.

I had been troubled by the growing popularity of karate and other martial arts training among the nation's youths, especially those in the suburbs.

It seemed almost un-American for all these kids to be leaping and twirling like a lot of little Japanese assassins. Our tradition has been to settle disputes with a punch in the chops, not a kick to the brow.

I'm told it's the result of their fondness for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which is something else that troubled me. My generation would never have embraced as heroes some ugly, green, pizza-eating, talking turtles who lived in sewers. We believed that anything living in a sewer should be hit with a brick.

And it would have been unthinkable for our heroes -- John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, the Wolfman, Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, or even Sonny Tufts -- to have twirled and kicked an enemy. Well, maybe Sonny Tufts. Nothing he did would have surprised us.

But an entire generation is growing up believing that the way to fight is to squint, spin and kick an adversary's brow, while screaming: "Eeeeyaaach!" (I believe that in Japanese "Eeeeyaaach!" means, "This will teach you not to gawk at my girlfriend's rump when she walks to the ladies' room, bub." Or something to that effect.)

This could make for some strange looking barroom fights in the future, with everyone whirling, leaping and kicking this way and that. The winners will be whoever is sober enough to stand on one foot, which has never been a measure of barroom brawlmanship. And chances are, all these suburban-bred karate tots will be America's future barroom brawl losers, since a toe kick will never replace a well-aimed bottle as an edge.

There's also the problem of height. In Japan, most people are about the same size -- short or shorter -- except for their beer-bellied wrestlers. So it's usually an even match when the Japanese pummel their brows.

But our superior diet of burgers and fries has given us youths whose addled heads brush the top of a door frame. What will happen when some stubby lad squares off against someone the size of Will Perdue? He'll find himself squashed under a size 19 triple D, that's what.

However, these concerns faded as I watched the little kids go through their routines. When the instructor and the other black-belted coaches barked out commands, all those tikes leaped to attention and quickly ran to and from their assigned places. They even bowed. I haven't seen so fine an example of obedience since Fagin taught his lads a useful trade.

Maybe that is something our clueless school administrators should think about. Instead of paying teachers more for getting advanced degrees, they should urge them to get black belts in karate.

When the exhibition ended, one father was leading two of his children out of the building. One of them was yawling that he wanted to go to McDonald's. The other was demanding a visit to Chuck E Cheese.

"No," he said, "we're going to eat at Grandma's, and I don't want you spoiling your appetites."

They howled even louder. The father just shook his head, and his shoulders slumped.

Never mind the kids. There is a man who could use his own lessons in saying: "Eeeeyaaach."

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