Tae kwon do Master On A Mission

Michael Coles teaches the Korean martial art Tae kwon do as a sport and a way of life. Coles discovered the art when he was a young boy, growing up in a poor urban neighborhood. Now he makes a living teaching Tae kwon do to affluent students in a Maryland suburb. But he also reaches out to children from underprivileged areas and teaches them for free, hoping to pass on the discipline and confidence he was able to find. Coles was featured this week in the Washington Post Magazine. He talks about his passion and his craft.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Next, we open up the pages of The Washington Post magazine, which is something we do just about every week to find interesting stories about the way we live now. Today, the focus is on a man who grew up in an impoverished urban neighborhood. And instead of succumbing to the chaos around him, he turned to martial arts, Tae Kwon Do specifically.

For Michael Coles, the subject of The Post Magazine piece, Tae Kwon Do is more than just a sport. It's a way of life. And he's using it now to better the lives of kids who could use a helping hand. And he's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. MICHAEL COLES (Tae Kwon Do Master): Thank you for having me, Ms. Martin.

MARTIN: You're not nervous, are you?

Mr. COLES: No, I'll be okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I was going to say, because I think you could pick me apart like that but you wouldn't.

Mr. COLES: No, I wouldn't.

MARTIN: No. As I understand, that you actually credit "The Green Hornet," the 1960s show "The Green Hornet" for showing you the way.

Mr. COLES: Yes. At that time, Bruce Lee had just broken onto TV and he was the sidekick of the Green Hornet. And I was just glued to the set every day it came on.

MARTIN: What did you like about it?

Mr. COLES: Well, I just liked the way he was able to handle himself. And he just had a certain type of power about him. And it just kind of reached out and grabbed me. And I always wanted to do the martial arts, but at the time it was impossible for me to do. And then later on, when it did become possible, that was the first thing that was on my mind. Once I was able to do something, it was going to be martial arts.

MARTIN: How did you find your way to a martial arts studio or a Tae Kwon Do studio to begin with? I understand you grew up kind of rough. I don't know how you feel about talking about that now.

Mr. COLES: No, it's okay. What happened was I had a friend in school with me in junior high and we were pretty close and he told me he studied the martial arts. And so I didn't want him to have one-up on me so I kind of told a story and said, yeah, I do it too. So I found out that he really did do it and he studied at a studio called Kim's Karate. And I didn't want to go over there because I already told him I was taking it.

So the most popular person at the time was Jhoon Rhee. And so when he asked me where was I taking it, I told him, naturally, Jhoon Rhee. And so when I was able to afford it, I went down and signed up.

MARTIN: And Jhoon Rhee of course ran his own studio in D.C. What did your parents think about that?

Mr. COLES: Well, they told me if I could afford it, you know, they would sign for it because, you know, I was underage and had to have the approval of my parents.

MARTIN: They just couldn't afford it.

Mr. COLES: They just couldn't afford it.

MARTIN: They said if you could figure out how to make it happen, we'll support you.

Mr. COLES: Exactly. They were always supportive. That was most important. And the first tournament I mean I had been taking the martial arts no more than about three or four months and I was encouraged to go to Master Rhee's tournament and participate and I did. And when I went, I won. And when I won, Master Rhee was very proud of me and he introduced me to Bruce Lee, who was a special guest at his tournament. They were very close friends. And so that right there just made up my mind. I was, like, wow.

MARTIN: What does Tae Kwon Do mean in English?

Mr. COLES: It means the way of hand and foot. So, you know, Tae Kwon Do is the Korean version of using your hands and your feet, you know, to defend yourself.

MARTIN: The article makes clear that one of the things you're trying to teach kids with the martial arts is it's not just about fighting. What is it about?

Mr. COLES: Well, actually, it's about empowering yourself. And when you do that, you know, you realize the importance of humility and that most people who are not confident in themselves are the ones that go around trying to start fights, trying to make other people look smaller so they'll look big. And, you know, once you're into martial arts and you start to realize just what you are capable of doing, you know, that humility sets in.

And you realize, I know, because when I first started I'd start, you know, once I learned the martial arts, nobody's going to bother me. I'm going to just, you know, kick people around, whatever. But it got to a point where it's, like, that was the last thing on my mind was fighting. And it was more about improving myself and trying to reach my purpose in life.

MARTIN: One of the things you've chosen to do now is really extend yourself to kids who are having difficulties, kids who are not, you know, having the easiest time. For example, one of the kids who's profiled in the piece is a young man named Ray, who had spent most of his childhood in foster care and moved around quite a lot, had finally settled with a family, was having kind of a tough time. And I wanted to ask why have you chosen to spend that kind of time doing that kind of work? And what do you think the martial arts offers people who may be having a tough time?

Mr. COLES: Well, I feel that anything that I have gotten from the martial arts, I should try to return and give it to them. I know it's empowered my life. It's helped me overcome a lot of obstacles. And I think that if I can do the same for someone else, it feels like that's my purpose right now. And as far as, as in your other question, it can be dangerous to teach someone how to fight if you cannot first get into their minds. And that's the most important is that we try to teach discipline first.

We're not just going out teaching them how to punch and kick without first developing the discipline which will keep them in line and also make them appreciate the importance of not just, you know, using their martial arts in a negative way.

MARTIN: Now, you run your own studio yourself. I'm wondering if there's sometimes a tension between the material success that you could be working toward if you weren't spending a lot of your time...

Mr. COLES: Oh, I see.

MARTIN: ...working with kids for free.

Mr. COLES: Right. No. And I never have any tension as far as that's concerned. I feel that everyone should give back. If you have time, you should contribute it to helping someone else out who can't help themselves. And I don't feel any tension at all as far as my business and as far as what I'm doing on the side. Is it making it difficult for me to run my business? No. As a matter of fact, I feel even better. I feel that, you know, my business has improved because of, you know, what I'm doing.

I don't help out looking for a reward later. I help people because I feel that that's what we should all do. And if someone needs it, you should, you know, be there for them.

MARTIN: Well, what's next for you? Well, do you mind if I tell your age?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLES: You can. Go ahead. It's fine.

MARTIN: Well, let's say you're creeping up on the sixth decade.

Mr. COLES: Yeah, 57.

MARTIN: But you I would not know this by looking at you. I hope I'm not being fresh but I am saying that you look much younger.

Mr. COLES: Thank you.

MARTIN: I mean, you could be in your 30s.

Mr. COLES: Yeah, Tae Kwon Do does that for you, really.

MARTIN: Really? How? Can you bottle it and hand me some?

Mr. COLES: It, you know, number one keeps you in shape, but it gives you an inner peace, which I have. And I feel that I've slowed down my life, my aging in a way. And what else keeps me young is working with the kids. You know, when I'm out here and I'm jumping and kicking and punching and going through these things with the kids, it's keeping me in shape, but it's also is fun. That's the most important thing. I think the more we laugh, the more fun we have in life, the younger we stay.

MARTIN: Michael Coles runs a martial arts studio called Coles Martial Arts Academy in Bethesda, Maryland. That's right outside Washington, D.C. He was recently featured in a Washington Post magazine article. If you want to read the piece in its entirety and we hope you will we'll have a link on our website. Just go to NPR.org. Click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE. The piece is entitled, "A Master's Mission." It was written by Caitlin Gibson.

And Michael Coles joined us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. COLES: Thank you.

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