Learning Self-Discipline and Karate, Too
by Jill Agostino - New York Times - April 17, 2005
On one of the nicest days so far in April, after a winter that had shown little mercy, 25 Longwood High School students were eager to finish the day's classes and get into the cafeteria. Wearing gis, the traditional white karate uniforms, they formed straight rows and waited to begin. Honors students, special-education students, students with discipline problems--all of them quiet and respectful, full of anticipation.
The cafeteria tables were cleared to the sides, and for the next 45 minutes the students' attention focused on two senseis, or instructors, Jerry Figgiani and Tony Aloe, who hold sixth-degree black belts. Soon the boys and girls were sweating as the senseis led them through a series of martial-arts moves. In unison they recited creeds about developing themselves in a positive manner, self-discipline and using common sense. They did synchronized jumping jacks and practiced front snap kicks and vertical punches, although not on one another.
Then they headed outside to the school courtyard to continue the class. Teenagers who would have otherwise never ventured out of their cliques or social isolation ran together, laughed together and fell back into formation together to practice some more. They looked like a team.
"A lot of these students have found a home with this program," said Dan Tapia, a teacher at Longwood who helps coordinate the martial-arts classes. "There is a lot of bonding. They all work together, kids who wouldn't usually be in the same setting."
The students and the adults involved with the twice-a-week program say that results have been remarkable. Chris Caravello, an 11th grader, said that the program had given him the motivation to lose 60 pounds since he began it last year. "It's made me stronger, and I eat healthier," he said. "It's made me a lot better person."
Lamin Davis, also an 11th grader, said that he used to get into trouble in school and had run-ins with the administration. He left the martial-arts program for a short time and got into trouble again, but that stopped once he was encouraged to rejoin by Mr. Figgiani and Mr. Aloe.
"I used to get angry real fast," he said. "I don't anymore. Someone upsets you, you breathe deeply and walk away. You listen, but you don't hear what they say. You can move on and know you're the bigger person."
In Januay 2004, Chuck Morea, who was then an assistant principal at Longwood, worked with Mr. Figgiani and Mr. Aloe to start the martial-arts program. Mr. Figgiani and Mr. Aloe developed the curriculum, in which students can earn a black belt in two years. Community service is a big part of the program, with projects like working soup kitchens, cleaning up roadsides and collecting clothes to take to churches. The program also focuses on living by the tenets of martial arts: respect, intelligence, courtesy, responsibility and wisdom.
The Police Athletic League provided the uniforms and the money about $7,000 a year for the 50 to 60 students who are signed up. The program has since expanded to the Connetquot district's two middle schools and its high school and to William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach. Other schools on Long Island have expressed interest in starting similar programs.
"As a former martial artist, I knew it can raise self-esteem," said Mr. Morea, who is now the principal at Connetquot Middle School in Ronkonkoma. "I saw kids fighting for no reason. There was a basic lack of respect for themselves and others, and I knew martial arts could help with that."
Mr. Morea said that he wanted Mr. Figgiani, 45, and Mr. Aloe, 58, who own the East Coast Black Belt Academy in Middle Island, to run the program because "I knew they would get a rapport going with the kids. They're extremely gifted."
On television or in the movies, karate is often protrayed as violent, but the Longwood program stresses martial arts as a way of life.
"We take experiences in our lives and talk to them about how it's given us direction in our lives," said Mr. Figgiani, who added that when he was a student at Sachem High School in Lake Ronkonkoma, he had some problems before martial arts helped him turn his life around. "It's about choices and responsiblity. Words that come out of their mouths are more powerful than any punch they could ever throw."
Mr. Aloe and Mr. Figgiani traveled to Okinawa in 1991 to study with Soke Takayoshi Nagamine (a grandmaster, the highest level that can be achieved in karate) and they have based the principles of their system of karate on his teachings. In Japan they saw schools begin martial-arts training with students as young as five and six and wanted to bring some of that culture to American schools.
"The U.S. is highly competitive," Mr. Aloe said. "We wanted to take the competitiveness out of it and work with what the philosophy of karate really is. When people come into the program, we make it clear that it's not a sport. In here we make it clear that every kid is the quarterback of their football team."
The class ended with a demonstration by Nagamine Sensei, who was visiting from Okinawa. The students sat on the linoleum floor, watching intently as he performed a short kata, a set of arranged movements meant to simulate combat. Afterward, in unison, they recited the black-belt oath ("Honesty, integrity, humility, self-control, perserverance, indomitable spirit") and hugged their senseis before gathering their belongings and their bus passes.
Louis Brienze, an 11th grader, was at the front of the pack as they crowded around Mr. Figgiani and Mr. Aloe. "I never had an idol until I met them," he said. "I have walked away from many fights, thought about how stupid it was, but I always used to get into altercations. I'm just amazed and humbled by these guys."