At the front of the classroom stood a small boy with dark brown skin, close-cropped hair and a wide green belt. He stood out in sharp contrast against the starched white of his gi, the traditional uniform of a novice martial arts student.
His name was Damian, and as the class came to attention, he yelled a promise.
“I intend!” he said so loud his voice echoed.
“To devote myself!” the class answered automatically.
“In a positive manner!” Damian yelled.
“To avoid anything,” was the reply.
“That would reduce,” he said.
“My mental growth,” the class chanted back with each face a mask of determination.
“Or my physical strength,” he replied.
Together, the class solemnly finished the chant. All eyes were focused forward and burned with passion.
“We are a black belt school. We are dedicated. We are motivated. We are on a quest to be our best. Tang Soo!” the assorted bunch of men, women and children repeated.
But they didn’t look like warriors or a fighting force. They were average people, ranging in age from 10 to 70.
Black, white and Hispanic, each of the dozen is students of the Eagle Leadership Martial Arts School and the ancient Tang Soo Do fighting style. Three days a week, the class trains in the group setting at the J.A. Walters Family YMCA in Gainesville. There, they have become as closely knit as a family.
Run by Rachel and Chris Chisum, longtime masters of the Tang Soo Do fighting form, the lessons of Eagle Leadership Martial Arts School go beyond defensive skills and forms. Eagle Leadership, as its name implies, is testament to what the school wants to produce: leaders.
Schoolmaster Rachel believes sticking with the long-practiced mind, body, spirit approach of traditional martial arts. They teach students not just how to be good fighters and leaders but condition them to approach life in a more focused and balanced manner.
“We have them understand that it’s not just on the floor (fighting area) that matters,” she said. “Everything you learn in here— discipline, integrity, courtesy, respect — not only integrates itself in the lesson, but out in life, too.”
Each week, students learn the tactics of self-defense and how to fight with fist, foot and brain. The hourlong class consists of three parts: exercise, instruction and practice.
Each class begins with the promise and 20 minutes of vigorous exercise, such as running punctuated by different calisthenics designed to stretch and strengthen.
The class then gathers around the master while she and an advanced student practice self-defense maneuvers, such as how to break an opponent’s grip on the arm or wrist.
Lastly, the class breaks into pairs and spars, using moves that will eventually become part of a larger form. All are done under the watchful eyes of both masters.
The Chisums have been practicing martial arts for nearly two decades. Last month marked the school’s sixth anniversary.
Throughout the years, the couple have seen hundreds of students come and go. For some, the intimate nature of the school and commitment required by the masters are too much. But for others, the benefits are innumerable.
“To really understand the martial arts, you can’t just come in here, take a one-hour class and then go home and act every way that you want to,” assistant master Chris said. “Doing that is just a disservice to the art.”
Two of the school’s top students, Kristie and R.J. Scott, have been studying under Rachel and Chris since the school opened in 2011. The mother and son have earned second-degree black belts and help lead classes. They pair with novices to work on forms and technique.
“It gives them real-world experience in teaching and shows them how to teach different kinds of people,” Chris said. “We have found that you don’t really understand a martial art until you try and explain it to someone else.”
But neither R.J. nor his mom were always trained fighters. At first, they were just looking for a new way to exercise.
“I started first, then my mom came up behind me,” R.J. said with a laugh.
But after six years, neither is willing to admit the other is better.
Of the pair, though, Kristie seems to be the most changed. She said before she started martial arts, she was a totally different person.
“I was so shy when I started,” she said. “I didn’t like to give speeches or be up in front of crowds. And now I direct the children’s choir at church up in front of everyone and I’m the nurse in charge of my floor at work.”
Kristie attributes her confidence boost to learning her strengths and weaknesses at the martial arts school and the certified instructor training the Chisums hold Saturday mornings for black-belt students.
The certified instructor training classes do not cover any part of the martial art forms. Rather, the group of black belts meets to talk and learn from their masters about how to interact with people in everyday situations and how to be an effective teacher.
“We work them through every scenario possible,” Rachel said. “We want them to have effective experience dealing with all kinds of people.”
But for all of her students, Rachel has an ironclad rule of setting and sticking with goals that require progress. She also requires her school-age students to bring in their report cards each month. She said she has no slack for students who disobey their parents or teachers.
“We are not just their instructors with martial arts,” she said. “We want to partner with their family and make sure that they become everything that they want to be. So they have to set those goals. And there are things that they have to achieve, not just in class but out there ... These goals make everything come together as one.”