To tell the truth, I have come expecting to see a bunch of fledgling fighters, put through their paces by their world-famous teacher. I am expecting a 6- or 7-year-old's version of a blood-curdling battle cry, a few heel-of-the hand blows to some vital spot (punches pulled, of course) and a take-down or two.
After all, I am at Amidon Elementary School to witness the graduation to white-belt status of Jhoon Rhee's class of first-grade tae kwan do trainees. I am expecting action. What I get is philosophy.
"I am smart because I always learn something good," the incredibly disciplined youngsters shout in unison after going through a few of their basic, non-contact moves. "I'm perfect because I never make mistakes knowingly," they shout, resplendent in their crisp white uniforms given them by Master Rhee. "I like myself because I always take action to make things happen."
The 58-year-old Rhee has been a teacher of martial arts for some 40 years, 30 of them in the United States, and he expects his young charges to know how to take care of themselves by the time he's done with them five years from now. He may even produce a champion or two. But that's not the reason he has volunteered to devote six years of twice-weekly teaching sessions to these Southwest Washington youngsters. His goal is nothing less than to change their lives. No, Jhoon Rhee seriously expects to change the world.
He knows that most of the children enrolled in his karate course to learn the art of self-defense, and Pauline Hamlette, Amidon's principal, was so concerned about the prospect that she nearly decided not to allow the course. "I thought the children would be so eager to show off what they learned that they would be hurting each other on the playground," she said. Instead, it turns out that the 45 or 50 youngsters in Rhee's class are the least trouble-prone youngsters she has.
Rhee is not surprised. From the outset he was more interested in teaching philosophy than in training kick-fighters.
"You know, philosophy is something we should teach the elementary school students, not in college after a certain way of doing things has been molded in their minds," he tells me after the belting ceremony. "Philosophy should be taught as soon as reason begins to function -- at 3, 4 or 5 years of age."
And what is the relation between Korean karate and philosophy? "It is a matter of balance," says Rhee. "Integrating knowledge in the mind, character in the heart and strength in the body. I teach them the physical qualities of tae kwan do, but I also teach them that these physical qualities must be translated into human qualities that can be applied in our daily lives." Thus quickness in the gym translates into alertness in the business world. Endurance becomes perseverance. Timing become punctuality. Power becomes knowledge. Even a simple ritual like bowing to the instructor (which he insists is not merely an Oriental custom but a natural and universal show of respect) lays the groundwork for respect of teachers and parents.
So what brings this eminently successful athlete and businessman to his unpaid labor of love at Amidon (and at nearby Bowen Elementary, where he has a class of sixth-graders, and Woodbridge High School in Virginia, where he trains the football team)?
"Well, I've been very successful, and I really feel that success unshared is unfulfilled. I have a nice home, all the children are out of college now and healthy and happy, and I want to give the rest of my life for society. I'm going to make some history."
The first phase of his attempt at history will be to transform the lives of these first-graders. He has no doubt that by the time they finish Amidon, they will be noticeably different: smarter, more confident, disciplined -- and happy.
"The thing I teach them, when we talk about life, is that the purpose of life is to be happy. But unless they are nice to people, people are not going to appreciate them, and they are never going to be happy. If that is clear in their minds, they will be nice to each other."
That simple notion, writ large, is how Rhee hopes to change the world. "My goal is to make truth, beauty and love the basic rule by which we deal with each other. You can't even have a game between the Redskins and the Cowboys with two different sets of rules. Well, we have literally five billion rules of the game of life today in this society, which is why human history has been nothing but bloodbaths. What we must do is to bring a single value system to bear on our universal problems."
It strikes Rhee as entirely reasonable to start with a few hundred youngsters at Amidon, Bowen and Woodbridge and use them to raise the discipline of their schools and communities, or to plant the seeds of his message in the Soviet Union (where martial arts training is officially illegal) as he did on a recent tour. With that as a start, and with the technology of TV and videotapes at his disposal, he really does believe he is "going to make some history happen."