It's a Wednesday evening at the Webster M. Kendrick Recreation Center in West Cold Spring. Outside there is the peace that typically comes with day's end in this quiet Northwest Baltimore neighborhood. But inside the gym it's a different story. There, young warriors prepare for battle. The Avengers Karate Club is about to meet.
The smallest combatant is a 6-year-old barely 4 feet tall, the largest a teen-ager who has pushed past 6 feet. Their size difference doesn't mean they won't pair up to spar. Such a match would illustrate what this karate club is about, teaching kids they can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds with the right attitude.
The Avengers Club has been using karate to teach that lesson for 30 years. Plans are being made to celebrate the club's anniversary on Aug. 20 at Martin's West. (See accompanying box.) Special tributes will be given to club founder Riley Hawkins, whose students have grown up and are themselves teaching Avengers members now.
The 150 Avengers come from all over Baltimore. Their home the past 10 years has been the Kendrick rec center, where karate classes are held every Monday and Wednesday night. All the students are asked to bring is a desire to learn. They can buy a karate uniform if they like, but there are no other costs.
"The lessons have always been free," Mr. Hawkins said. "Besides, karate is the least important part of what we do. What we want them to learn is discipline, how to control their bodies and their minds. Learn that, and they will be successful adults."
As if to demonstrate what "Master Hawkins" has been talking about, instructor Tony Jackson calls the Avengers to order. The younger members have been roughhousing, as kids are apt to do, practicing what looks like something they learned from the Power Rangers on television, rather than in class.
Mr. Jackson orders the apparent ring leader to drop and give him 10 push-ups. "You didn't have permission to do that, did you?" the 17-year veteran of the Marine Corps barks. "No, sir," is the meek reply.
The instructor then orders the 20 students in this class to line up. There are only two girls in the group this day, both about 9 years old. Most of the students wear the white belts of beginners, but there are a couple of the higher-rank yellow belts among them. As always, they begin their lessons with a bow to the instructor.
Next comes 10 minutes of stretches, followed by 10 minutes of calisthenics, then punching exercises. Finally, before they break into pairs for sparring, each student greets every other member of the club with a handshake.
They want to keep the fighting friendly. And most of the time it is. But sometimes that becomes difficult.
Six-year-old Mustafa Jackson is one of those perpetual-motion machines who makes up for lack of technique with constant movement. The inevitable happens this evening, an unanticipated punch to the nose of his partner, 9-year-old Ashley Payne-El.
Ashley cries, but after class takes it all in stride, even confessing that "I like to fight here because I get to hit my brother [Sherman Payne-El, 7]. We can't fight at home."
Mr. Hawkins, 51, a security escort at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, said he first got interested in the martial arts when he was 14. He took jujitsu classes at the YMCA from Bob McPherson, an Air Force veteran who had learned the fighting technique while overseas.
Later, Mr. Hawkins took karate classes at Morgan State University from Herbert Hines.
The middle child of seven siblings, Mr. Hawkins began teaching what he learned to his baby sister and two younger brothers. Then they wanted him to teach karate to their friends.
Before long there were so many kids wanting karate lessons that Mr. Hawkins moved the classes from his home to Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church. It was there that the Avengers club was born.
"We started our club in 1965 and called it the Avengers," he said. "The kids named it. We started going to tournaments the next year. They've always come back with a trophy or something."
Before this evening's class is over there are six adult black belts helping the young Avengers learn karate techniques through both demonstrations and individual instruction.
Mr. Hawkins no longer teaches the children. But on weekends he holds classes for about 25 black belts who rotate serving as karate instructors at the rec. They are all Avengers who, after growing up, decided to give back what they got from the program.
Willie "Wink" Saffore, 30, said he didn't hesitate when given an opportunity to teach young Avengers. "What they have to do when they're in here will give them the discipline to deal with the streets," he said. "Riley taught me things a father would teach his son. He instilled values in me. I want to do that for someone else."
Joe Miller, 42, has been an Avenger since he was 14. He would go to the YMCA on Druid Hill Avenue, where Mr. Hawkins worked with kids after moving the classes from the church.