Karate teacher has black belt in helping to change lives

December 05, 2003|By Michael Olesker

NAJIB AMIN will live forever or die trying. He is 71 years old and still putting the kids through their paces. Sometimes they think he's not talking their language. But there are days, like last week with Julian Harris, where they come back to tell Amin he was right, and look how their lives are working out.

Julian came in from Chicago. Amin remembers him as puffed up, exploding with energy, bragging to everybody in the locker room that he was better than they were. You never know about kids. Amin saw something in the boy. He sees things in some of these kids that he remembers in himself.

He is Najib Amin now, but he was Santa Jones long ago. He was an aimless East Baltimore street kid raised by his Aunt Alberta who kept things together by washing clothes at a Chinese laundry.

"What about your parents?" Amin was asked yesterday.

"My aunt took me from them," he says. "They were party people. She decided she would raise me herself."

He shrugs his shoulders. Sitting in his Catonsville home, his posture is lean and arrow-straight, his smile warm, his voice an inch short of basso profundo. His aunt gave him possibilities, which is what he tries to give back to today's young people. Their problems mirror his, half a century ago at Lombard and Caroline streets.

"If I had stayed, I'd be in jail or dead," he was saying yesterday. "I wasn't a bad kid. I did little things, like stop and watch guys shooting craps in the alley. But it wasn't unusual down there for guys to get shot and cut. There was a friend of mine. We shot pool together. I liked him, although he was in and out of trouble all the time. I didn't know he was carrying a weapon that night. He shot and killed somebody. I was with him 10 minutes before it happened. That scared me to death. So I joined the Army because I saw what the future could be."

In the Army was a master sergeant named Jones. He called Santa Jones his namesake and mentored him. The two men would talk late into the night about making their way in the world. Six years later, honorably discharged, Santa Jones went to night school at Morgan State, went to work at Social Security, got married.

And he began to explore the world's religions. Buddhism first, then Islam. He took the name Najib Amin 32 years ago. His wife became Mannan. And, along the way, they had begun learning karate.

For the past eight years, they've operated the Shotokan Karate Club of Maryland, a nonprofit school in a modest studio in a Randallstown strip mall. For a quarter-century before that, Najib taught at a couple of karate schools in Catonsville. A few thousand students have come under his tutelage.

Today, Amin holds a seventh-degree black belt in Shotokan karate. Of more than 5 million practitioners of Shotokan, only about two dozen non-Japanese have risen to that level. The Amins' son, Farid, 45, a cardiothoracic anesthesiologist at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, is a fifth-degree black belt.

"I do this out of love," Amin says. "We're trying to make the world a better place, one person at a time. It's about giving people discipline, focus, self-reliance."

For many who stick with it, it has changed their lives.

"Some of these kids come in with attitudes," Amin says. "And some of the parents, we have to sit down with them. One lady babied her son so much. I said, `What are you trying to do to him?' She said, `He's my baby.' She'd take off his coat for him, tie his shoes for him. I said, `You have to turn him loose.'

"Others, there are problem kids. We had one family, the boy wasn't too bad, but the sister was incorrigible. We bring the parents in. They tell us problems they're having. We tell them what we can do. This isn't about fighting. It's about discipline. We can turn their lives around."

He says all of this with a quiet self-assurance. Some kids are easier than others. He remembers Julian Harris, who started with him five years ago.

"Full of himself, arrogant," Amin says. "Came from a good family. Not a bad child, but ..."

He searches for the right word. Harris' father, Steven Harris, a retired city employee, supplies a few. "Hyper, compulsive, a know-it-all," he says. "And I credit Mr. Amin very much with helping him. He took it that extra mile. At a time when there's all that peer pressure, he was there. It was like a family atmosphere. I have nothing but respect and praise for him."

You never know how kids will turn out. Julian Harris left town a while back, after graduating Baltimore's School for the Arts, and then turned up last week to see Amin. Julian's living in Chicago now, studying music theory and composition at Roosevelt University and hoping to get a master's degree. He plays the trumpet. In fact, he played in a Baltimore group, Orpheus, that cut a CD and won an NAACP music competition.

He wanted to say thanks to Amin. He caught up to him in class, naturally. Amin hopes to teach karate for years to come. Why not? Aunt Alberta lived to 95. Two other aunts lived past 100. He's only 71. He wants to live forever, or die trying.

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