At the beginning of class, the children of the Oakland Kajukenbo Kwoon circle up and take a knee, with their heads bowed and their little fists pressed into the hardwood.
“I am powerful!” one little voice squeaks.
“I am fierce!” shouts the next.
“I am speedy!”
“I am unstoppable!”
It’s so freakin’ cool I don’t know what to do with myself and have to play with my phone just to keep from crying. They are learning something I wish I’d learned at five: how to have a say in things.
“I am somebody!” . . . is my personal favorite.
According to Sifu Kate Hobbs, a fifth-degree black belt and chief instructor of the school, vocalization is an integral part of self-defense. She lists “a voice that comes from deep in the guts” right alongside physical skills, agility, and timing, as factors she hopes will give her students a valuable edge if they are ever attacked.
For her, it’s all about the repetition of techniques and drills.
“I don’t spend any class time talking about what students might do if this or that happens,” she said. “Students are expected to attend regularly, engage fully, practice on their own, and stay for their whole lives.”
Kajukenbo, an American-made martial art, was established in the late 1940s in a violent Honolulu neighborhood by five black belts in five different Eastern disciplines — one of whom also happened to be Hawaii’s welterweight champion. So add a little Western pugilism to the mix.
Through this fist style, stilts the official Kajukenbo motto, one gains long life and happiness. The focus from the start — and Hobbs most definitely carries this torch — was on realism. Street smarts.
“Kajukenbo is beautiful and tough,” Hobbs told me. “It was created so men could kick other men’s asses if they got fronted on.” She described her own two Kajukenbo teachers as tough Irish-American women, and said she has tended — being herself of Irish descent — toward their “practicality and gritty-but-humorous self expression.”
Hobbs, who teaches a “Little Tigers” class for 3-5-year-olds, as well as older kids and adults, quoted Sijo Adriano Emperado, one of the five founders of Kajukenbo, as saying that “a great class was one where blood was shed.”
OK. But also, it’s cute. At least watching kindergartners practice “this fist style” is.
The parents who line the sidelines with me at the St. Columba Church in North Oakland seem sometimes mesmerized, sometimes traumatized, and sometimes proud as punch(es), watching their li’l beloveds stumble and soar through a variety of agility drills, jabs, and kicks.
I can speak for myself. Underlying everything, there is a sense of incredible gratitude, watching the kids I love (and worry about), as if they were my own, learn and practice something fundamentally important: using their five senses, their voice, and their bodies to not only defend themselves, but express what happened afterwards.
Sifu Kate, as they all call Hobbs, has a way with kids, and I feel like I could learn a little Nanny Fu from her, too. Without any perceivable effort, she has their respect and, generally speaking, their attention.
“I think I have a great combination of patience with the wild and unfettered nature of humans, and the timing of the drills and lessons,” she told me.
Watching my charge, Chunk de la Cooter, going through the running drills, forwards, backwards, skipping, grapevining, leaping, twirling — with an athletic grace I hadn’t yet seen in her — of course I couldn’t help imagining her with a soccer ball. And vowed to stay healthy enough to play on her rec league team one day.
When she’s 21, I’ll be 65. But that’s OK. I’m inspired, and she’s in excellent hands.
“Is Kung Fu sports?” I asked her in the car, driving home.
“No,” she said.
Then, after a brief period of reflection, she said: “Yes.”
Then: “We’ll ask Daddy.”
Hobbs, who I also asked, said, “I don’t think martial arts practice is anything like team sports. It is very individual and the competition is personal.
“We partner and we need each other to learn, and we bond,” she said, “but it has a totally different tenor.”
Among the lessons she feels are most important: Commitment, focus, love, self-respect . . . “Connect with the world,” she said. “Be open and curious, not afraid and careful, but large and messy and ugly.”
Oakland Kajukenbo Kwoon