Over a hundred Tuesday nights, I’ve watched Master Bruce Hagins take a wriggling 6-year-old with muscles like spaghetti noodles and the attention span of a puppy and persuade that child to perform 100 crunches on a hard tile floor, hold spider pushups for 10 seconds each and kick high enough to catch an opponent on the chin.
I know because my own wriggling 6-year-old earned his yellow belt in Master Bruce’s gym at Lions Park off Glascock Street and because I endured those 90-minute workouts myself in the spirit of parental camaraderie. Under Master Bruce’s tutelage, this middle-aged father has experienced being lifted completely off the ground and thrown across the room.
Just last week, I heard him tell a roomful of what appeared to be kindergartners, “Master Bruce will make you do 100 pushups. We’ll be here till 10 o’clock. Our last thing tonight is one pushup. Of course, that pushup might take 10 minutes.”
At age 57, Master Bruce has trained thousands of young feet in the art of taekwondo, many of them underprivileged, many of them too much of a behavior challenge to be welcome in the gyms of fancier neighborhoods. He is such an institution at Lions Park after 27 years there that former students return in their 30s, and he always remembers their names.
“I get the kids that people don’t think they’ve got any talent,” he said. “I’m a Christian. I’m a deacon in my church. Christ is a part of me. I’m going to take the whole hundred. Ninety-nine won’t do. There’s one that’s left, and I’ve got to go get him.”
I’m writing about this Raleigh institution today because I’ve never heard him boast, but he called to tell me he’d been listed in a new edition of “Who’s Who in the Martial Arts.” You can see him on Page 146, mentioned alongside the stars he used to see on TV.
“I was one of those kids that loved Bruce Lee,” he said. “Not because my name was Bruce …”
A native of Johnston County, he grew up athletic enough that people noticed. He was, he told me, the first black youth to play on a baseball team with white teammates. The coach, Master Bruce recalled, sought him out at age 6: “He came and knocked on my door Saturday morning and said, ‘Mrs. Hagins, I would like your son to play on our baseball team.’ I said, ‘When do I start?’ And he said, ‘Game starts in an hour. I’ve got your uniform in the car.’ ”
As a teen in the early 1970s, he joined a generation that loved Bruce Lee. He would practice in his front yard, and one day, he caught the eye of a member of the Nation of Islam delivering the Final Call newspaper in his neighborhood. That man taught him his first moves, which led to kickboxing on an East Coast circuit and eventually to teaching, which he does after work as a maintenance supervisor at First Baptist Church on Wilmington Street downtown.
You will never hear Master Bruce raise his voice, and you seldom see him without a smile. He doesn’t need to be loud or ugly to get your attention. Act out in his class, and he’ll give a polite warning. Act out again, and you’ll be doing pushups by yourself in the middle of the class.
When my own son started out in taekwondo, another kid teased him about not having a belt. So that kid’s mother, who overheard, brought her son to the center of the class and announced that he no longer deserved the orange belt around his waist. Master Bruce took the belt and kept it for many months.
“If you hang around long enough,” he said, “Master Bruce will rub off on you.”
It gets intense in there. Too intense for me sometimes. Lions Park offers students a small room with folding chairs and mirrors on the wall – not the most comfortable seating for classes that often stretch an hour and a half. My parents never attended one of my baseball practices as a kid. Nobody’s parents did. The whole point of youth sports, I thought, was to get your children tired out in somebody else’s house for a while.
But all parents attend Master Bruce’s classes, and many of them choose to join in. I can remember how much it hurt to squat down on one leg bent at the knee, sticking the other leg straight out in front of me like some kind of aquatic bird. I can remember Master Bruce assuring me I could get my foot all the way up to my face, or touch my nose to the floor without bending my legs, or any number of other contortions that made me silently curse. I remember thinking, often, that I hadn’t signed up for any of this. When we stopped going, after about nine months, the decision came mostly out of respect for my aging back.
But before we left, I saw my son walk the Basic Form #1 in front of 20 other kids. He knew the difference between a snap kick and a thrust kick. This is a kid who couldn’t stand on one leg when he started, and Master Bruce bowed when he presented his belt. For him, taekwondo is a spiritual expression of self-esteem, and a teacher’s only motivation is to share it.
We are not violent people in any way, and I have preached against unprovoked fighting dozens of times. But last summer, I saw another kid messing with Sam, and I watched him square off and throw a couple snap kicks in the air as a warning. The other kid backed away, and I couldn’t have been prouder.
It’s a moment Master Bruce has seen happen countless times over countless nights spent with countless kids, and it’s time somebody put him in the record books.