Seven-year-old Ayden beams: “Pops, I got my third stripe!” This is no small feat in the Taekwondo class of Master Julia Wegmann, to get that stripe added to the gold and yellow belt.
It demonstrates, yes, a mastery of some moves, the instructor’s approval of one’s effort (“Who are gonna be my toughest guys today?” she asks in her clear, firm voice in class) and good behavior all around, as some stripes require a praiseworthy note from parents.
Taekwondo, a form of Korean martial arts based on thrusting and kicks and the like, is a major form of exercise for many adults these days, but parents are finding as well that it can be a form of character-building for their young ones.
And that’s what has brought some of the youngsters to Allen’s Taekwondo in Cary every Thursday night for some months.
They enter the long, well-lit room, bow out of respect for the sport and their instructors and carefully unpack gym bags as big as they are: the padded striking sticks, the helmets, the foot and body guards, the gloves.
First lesson learned: On occasion, I’ve asked Ayden and his buddies to help me clean up after they’ve covered the living room and the den with toys, and it’s as if I’m speaking French. But at Taekwondo, the kids unpack and pack with the precision of an English butler.
Discipline is one benefit. Of many, says Wegmann and her husband, Mike Wegmann, also a high-level instructor and one of the owners, with his wife, of Allen’s and Visions Taekwondo, which has several locations in the Triangle.
“I got started,” Mike Wegmann says, “because I was bullied. I stopped wanting to go to school. I was obese. Then I saw the movie, ‘The Karate Kid.’”
He started going to classes. It became his passion. “It’s what I wanted to do with my spare time,” he said. “And after a while, I wasn’t bullied anymore.”
Julia Wegmann’s family moved frequently in her youth.
“I was really shy as a child,” she said. “And then, right before I turned 5, my mom enrolled me. After that, everywhere we moved, I could find a class and make friends.” Eventually, she got the top belts, went through N.C. State (as did her husband, a business major) majoring in zoology and genetics and the personal passion became a profession.
Her students are all ages, but with her sense of humor and a naturally easy manner, she has a way with children.
“Show me your focus!” she says. “Eyes straight ahead! Arms by your sides! Who wants to be my leader? Ayden! Come up here!”
Ayden and another student go to the front, in their white suits with gold and yellow belts, lead the class through several kicks and jabs, and then everyone does pushups. Partners square off to practice moves, once the pads are on. There is no complaining. Ayden takes another kid, slightly bigger than he, down with a spinning kick. The kids pops right up.
With every order, the kids shout, “Yes ma’am!” They bow to partners, to Julia Wegmann, to the facility when they enter and leave.
“Sometimes,” Julia Wegmann said, “the hardest part is getting them in the car. Once they’re here, they’re fine.”
And there are some very good moments for the teachers.
“One young man who was with us had cerebral palsy,” Mike Wegmann said. “Some days he just laid on his mom’s lap. But to see that little guy doing the things that everyone else did. That was huge.”
“We had another young man,” Julia Wegmann said, “who had some issues, health things, but the day he gets his black belt...that will be his best day ever.”
The students pause for a class segment on values and character, sitting in a circle with notebooks. They will talk about goals, Julia Wegmann tells them. And so they methodically list their goals and why they care about them. (They’ll get back to kicks and the like later.)
“It’s hard for parents to sit with kids and talk about this,” Julia Wegmann said. “But we can do it here because they all do it. One parent was so nice, she said, ‘You’ve helped my son, but you’ve helped me be a better parent.’ That was nice.”
Class proceeds, with running and pushups and fierce duels with sticks and thrusts and smacks with the pads. Ayden goes down a couple of times, and gives as good as he gets. By the end of class, he and the others are soaked with sweat.
Ayden thinks it’s cool when I post a Facebook picture of him breaking a board with a caption for a famous movie star martial artist: “Note to Chuck Norris. Anywhere. Anytime.”
I was just kidding, but now I’m thinking there might be a pay-per-view deal here. If we can get insurance on Chuck.