Ancient art, new lesson Despite debilitating pain, a veteran teacher of tae kwon do finds that his passion for the martial art remains strong

November 15, 1998|By Joe Nawrozki

ALEX GRIFFITH, 5, loses his balance standing in line with his fellow students. He chews on his white belt, the symbol of beginner in the martial art of tae kwon do. And in the midst of a highly disciplined class, he breaks into song.

Alex, alarmingly frail and sometimes lost in his own world, possesses the heart of a lion and is my new inspiration.

At a decided crossroads in my 30 years of studying and teaching tae kwon do, a Korean martial art, Alex has also emerged as my new challenge. And he is a reminder that courage defies definition, that we learn as we teach.

I'm privileged to instruct about 40 wonderful students - senior black belts to beginners - in Jarrettsville for Harford County's Department of Parks and Recreation. They include children, teen-agers, adults, Junior Olympic gold medalists, state champions, former street fighters and people searching to conquer themselves.

Alex inspires me for many reasons, one of which is that there's no quit in him. His parents could drape the cloak of victimhood over him and lead him down a road of excuses. But they, and Alex, have chosen a more difficult path.

Unknown to him, I have borrowed from that strength because of a chronic health problem of my own - a spine that belongs in the Smithsonian. I have experienced two devastating injuries, igniting a wicked pain I quietly curse every day.

Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of condition is I cannot exercise as I did. Every week, I devoted three days to weights and aerobics training in the gym and two nights at tae kwon do practice.

Resuming even a milder workout schedule is on hold until the three surgeons guiding my future can get me feeling better. I find no consolation in the fact that bad backs are the second most prevalent health problem in the country, behind the common cold.

In rainy or cold weather, I take a while to get out of bed. I cannot put a sock or shoe on my left foot without a struggle. The hip resists mightily.

I take medication and am scheduled for another surgical procedure. An existing hole in my spine will be surgically drilled larger to make room for a pinched nerve that transmits a vicious pain from my two disappearing discs to my left side - a torment that feels as though inflicted by a rusty bayonet.

An earlier surgical procedure, killing four nerves, eased the pain in my lower back but did nothing for my hip.

My students understand my condition and my frustration. In class, I resemble more of a football coach than a more active instructor. I manage to lead class and warm-ups and stay on the floor for the two-hour class, while clusters of students work on forms, fighting, kicking and falling. I am extremely proud of my senior belts, who are becoming magnificent teachers.

People, my doctors included, ask me why I still teach. The power walk calls; is bingo far behind? My response is simple: I need that association with my students and the art. It is a passion, a part of me.

Tae kwon do remains one of the few good pieces I brought home from the wreckage of Vietnam. It has prevailed over the sensory memories of burning diesel fuel, rotting jungle floors and the metallic stink of blood in the evacuation hospital where the Hueys brought in the boys screaming for their mothers or God.

Dear brothers, and the art. That was all.

In my three decades of study and teaching, my passion for tae kwon do took me to tournaments where I met some of the finest competitors in the nation. They were grand in technique and humility, which can be disarming.

Along the way, I've been blessed to teach self-defense to blind children, women victimized by criminal attacks, police officers and representatives of government agencies. I've been fortunate participate in some memorable exhibitions, for audiences ranging from people at the Korean Festival in Baltimore to the toughest crowd of all - prisoners at the House of Correction at Jessup and the Baltimore City Jail.

I have maintained my affiliation with the international and national federations that govern tae kwon do. (Tae kwon do is an Olympic sport, and most schools operate under the aegis of the United States Taekwondo Union and United States Olympic Committee). Black belts are registered in South Korea by the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF).

Altered priorities

While the link to these organizations is important, I have drifted away from local professional schools because, simply, many changed their priorities over the years as tae kwon do became more of a sport than a way of life.

Excellent and committed instructors remain in all the martial arts styles, but consideration of the profit margin at many schools has overtaken the tenets of the art - humility, patience, indomitable spirit. Have these qualities become anachronistic in America's modern culture?

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