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Selling Out

By Herb Borkland

No lie. I live in a town so small, I pass horses, sheep and cattle on my way to the Blockbuster. Yup. Last week a TKD school opened up in Highland, the even-smaller small town a couple miles down Route 108. So – hey, you know me – on Saturday morning I dropped by the new dojang, to say howdy in Korean.

I ain’t no country bumpkin. I know how you sophisticated big-city folks think. Y’all believe living far from the urban metropolises somehow also means we live farther back in Time. Why, only last night I was complaining so loudly about this, my wife had to stop churning the butter – but I digress…

The truth is you and I do indeed occupy the exact same space-time continuum; so you can easily envision how shiny, contempo and impressively up-scale (no strip mall display windows!) White Tiger Taekwondo looks in a freshly-built cluster of town-house-style professional offices, right there across the street, I might point out, from Boarman’s, the best damn butchers in the state – but again I digress.

I stopped by on what turned out to be Open House Day. Now, folks, I won’t lie to you. I dearly love all TKD people. So y’all must not think ill of me for passing a fond eye over the over-weight moms; the either too-solemn or too-flibbertigibbet seven year olds; a kids’ class anchored by a red-faced balding blonde gentleman who was happily giving it his best shot; a world-class Korean instructor who didn’t even bother to wear a dobok (this is a sport now, dad).

Talking to the masters wasn’t in the cards. The owners of the school were busy setting up the PA system out by the moon-bounce in the parking lot. Families were already sitting around on the special portable practice surface that had been laid out square by square for the demos to come later. So I toured the pastel-painted, multi-room facility and read up on their brochures and flyers and handout sheets.

White Tiger comes-on state-of-the-arts. Which is to say: oriented toward kids, especially kids in need of a grounding in the basic civic and person virtues. Their way-cool logo is the close-up of one stern eye of the hero from a martial arts manga. The school offers sleep-overs, birthday parties, special events, varieties of classes and opportunities for every age, from the tenderest toddlers to adults looking for fitness and fun people to socialize with.

To those of us who started out in martial arts schools that still smelled like gymnasiums and had gaping holes punched in the sheet rock and silver duct tape wrapped around the battered old heavy bag, there is something a little dismaying about what gearing the arts to kids has done to the ambiance of “fighting styles.” And more than one veteran blackbelt has been heard to mutter under his breath about “selling out.” So let’s talk about “selling out.”

I’m Maryland Correspondent for the Martial Arts Industry Association (MAIA) magazine, MASuccess, which John Corcoran edits. I’d write for John Corcoran if he was publishing on three sheets of toilet paper out of a manhole in downtown Bayonne. But, in fact, MASuccess is a slick, dazzlingly laid-out postmodern trade association journal. And the mag reflects the Association, which was created by the founder and CEO of Century gear, and is helmed by millionaire school owners.

In America today, if you want to live the dream of being a professional martial artist and are willing to work hard, MAIA can teach you how to end up passing along to your sons and daughters a thriving, beloved, socially valuable family business which does not depend on spending your active years behind a desk wishing you’d gone to a snootier college. Like it or lump it, in the 21st century, running a martial arts school is more a business than an art, and more of an educational venue than a sweat emporium for slightly thuggy pugs.

Today’s martial arts schools are the last reliable resource of traditional values of respect, perseverance, self-reliance, respect, courage, etc. This year, a whole new wave of charter schools built around TKD are creating a sensation among progressive educators to whom such experiments are the laboratory where tomorrow’s public teaching systems are being pioneered. It has been discovered that martial arts instructors spent a generation learning, not only how to sell discipline to kids, but have them beg their parents to sign-up for more!

And so we return to the old-timer’s sneer of “selling out.” Here’s one good answer I received from Frank Silverman of Orlando, Florida, who is MAIA’s Executive Director.

“Selling out involves what you teach, not how you teach it,” Frank told me. “If I water down my curriculum, weaken my art or corrupt my standards – that’s selling out. But adopting five terrific new warm ups that are getting a huge positive reception from students coast-to-coast, isn’t selling out. Learning how to disguise repetition so the kids work harder, isn’t selling out.”

Frank grins. “Neither is servicing customers as they are accustomed to be dealt with by other serious businesses, in a teaching environment that looks more like an up-scale retailer rather than Rocky Balboa’s fight club. Above all, to care enough for each student to find a way, at every class, to build up that child’s self-confidence, to help them all to become strong, honest, happy and purposeful – that isn’t selling out.”

I don’t think White Tiger is a member of MAIA, but the trade association’s standards and practices have permeated (because they are successful!) most new schools. White Tiger, I wish you luck. It looks like the dojang will to be a valuable addition to the Clarksville community. This little town was founded in the mid-18th century, but is today as beset and challenged by everyday life as you and your family are, wherever you live. And wherever that may be, good luck, and don’t sell out. And if you want a sensation steak, try Boarman’s across the street – but I digress…


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About The Author:

Washington, D.C. native Herb Borkland has been called "a martial arts pioneer" because he was an original student at the first taekwondo school in the United States. After taking his degree at The University of Virginia, Herb went on to become a closed-door student of the legendary Robert W. Smith, author of the first English-language book about tai chi. An Inside Kung-Fu Hall of Fame writer, he was the first journalist ever invited to train in SCARS, the Navy SEALs fighting system. Herb scripted "Honor&Glory" for Cynthia Rothrock, featured on HBO, as well as winning the first-place Gold Award at the Houston International Film Festival for his Medal of Honor soldier screenplay "God of War." For three years he hosted the national half-hour Black Belts cable-TV show. Herb and his wife, the Cuban-American painter Elena Maza, live in Columbia, Maryland. He is also a regular columnist for FightingArts.com.


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