No longer green, 4 eighth-graders aim for the black

Kids will demonstrate five years of training as they vie for black belts in tae kwon do


Warner Lai is a rangy eighth-grader who rips through cinder blocks with his bare hand in gym class.

He's almost a black belt.

Today, he and three other eighth-graders at Midtown Academy, where two mandatory tae kwon do classes each week fulfill the state's physical education requirement, will take tests needed to graduate from danbo, or black belt-in-training, to full-fledged black belt.

"I'm calm, I'm ready for this," Warner, 14, said this week, after his last class before the trials.

Five years ago, at the behest of parents, Midtown Academy eschewed the more traditional kickball and rope-climbing for a fluid Korean martial art that combines courtesy, integrity and discipline with aerobics, punching and kicking.

Midtown Academy, in Bolton Hill, was one of several city schools in the late 1990s to be independently operated but publicly financed as part of what was then called a New Schools Initiative. Midtown became a charter school in 2004.

Parents began the tae kwon do classes as a way of infusing discipline, believing that the strict training regimen would be better suited to that purpose than other sports.

Only about 2 percent of all the nation's tae kwon do students achieve black belt proficiency, said instructor Mark Seidel, a fourth-degree black belt whom the Midtown pupils call "master." That means that the Midtown group, with four pupils out of the original 20 now eligible to take the test, has been exceptional.

Jeanie Lai, 14, Warner Lai's cousin, Tatianna Bonds, 13, and Micole Partee, 13, have clung together for five years during their training, moving through six degrees of difficulty and their corresponding belts, from yellow to black-and-red, and, now, if all goes well today, to full-out black.

"I have a picture of them when they were in fourth grade, and they always line up in the same order - it's almost savant-like," Seidel said. "They're more mature than their peers in the same age group."

But Seidel said that winning his pupils' affection - and attention - was difficult at first. Formerly an instructor at a martial arts center, Seidel didn't immediately snap into place at Midtown when he arrived in 2000.

"Frankly, for the first six weeks I tried to find a way out," Seidel said. "It took at least a year before I earned their respect."

Jeannie, Warner, Tatianna and Micole are planning to attend Polytechnic Institute in the fall.

On Tuesday, the black-belt candidates fell into formation and worked on a series of patterned kicks and punches that they will be tested on today. They'll also have to break wooden boards, spar, pass an oral exam on the tenets of tae kwon do and read aloud an essay about their journey through training.

The four have met with Seidel at 7:30 a.m. every Saturday for the past six months to prepare. On Wednesday nights, they meet with Seidel to spar.

The trials will be held a few blocks away from Midtown in the William H. Thumel Sr. Business Center at the University of Baltimore and will be judged by a panel of black belts, a certified instructor, Seidel and a layperson.

"I told them they would all cry when they had to take their test," Seidel said.

Not likely, said Jeannie, who during practice smashed through a wooden board as if it were a movie prop. Warner is the only one who can split a cinder block.

"Yeah, it hurts sometimes but you have to suck it up and make sure you don't let your master down," said Warner. "It takes discipline."

All four said they plan to continue their training.

"The master-student relationship is a lifetime relationship," Seidel said. "I'll be here to help them - unless they're asking me to co-sign a car loan."

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