Tae kwon do student finds peace in dojang
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
"Courtesy!" he yells in unison with his classmates.
"Integrity!" he continues. "Perseverance! Self-Control! Indomitable spirit!"
These are the tenets of tae kwon do, the words that articulate the values that bind these dozen youngsters to a Korean martial arts tradition that began two centuries ago.
The tenets are sacred in this small Kailua dojang. For Matthew, 13, they've helped bring focus to a world short-circuited by attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, an insidious and often misunderstood condition.
For his teacher, Sam Bishaw, 51, the principles of tae kwon do offer redemption from a life once suffocated by violence, anger and despair.
The hour passed as it always does, with drills and recitations, demonstrations and open sparring under the watchful eyes of Bishaw and instructor Bryan Amona. But Matthew is off his best tonight, and as soon as he steps off the training mat, he immediately looks for Bishaw.
"I was a little tired today, sir," he says.
Bishaw smiles. "When you come to practice, you want to be able to give it your all," he says, squatting to meet the boy's eyes. "So, no more surfing before class, all right?"
They both smile and another tiny milestone is passed in this dojang of second chances.
Left by his mother at age 2, Bishaw spent his childhood bouncing between an indifferent father and relatives who were ill equipped to deal with his wild behavior.
"I was an angry child," he said. "I was very unloved, very rejected."
After graduating from St. Joseph's High School in Hilo, Hawai'i, Bishaw joined the Navy and got as far away from home as possible. But military life wasn't the answer.
"I had a really hard time," he said. "I just didn't like authority. I got into fights all the time real kolohe."
When he was discharged in 1973 after six years of service, Bishaw set out to find a martial arts school that he felt might help quell his demons.
After visiting dozens of schools near his old port in Connecticut, Bishaw found a home in a dojang run by Hee Il Cho, a tae kwon do grand master.
Bishaw's aggressive style quickly earned him the right to face Cho's senior practitioners.
"I didn't care," Bishaw said. "I'd fight them. I'd fight anybody. Eventually, though, I started to notice how they conducted themselves and I began to pay close attention to that."
Bishaw took up residence at the dojang and trained hard seven days a week. Within a year and a half, he had earned a black belt.
When Cho left for California, Bishaw stayed behind to teach and train with his fellow black belts, but he was burning out.
Bishaw returned home to Hilo to open a martial arts school.
"I wanted to show that I could open up a school there and be successful. I wanted that acceptance," he said.
But the school didn't do well and Bishaw fell into a deep depression.
Bishaw would leave Hilo, again, this time for Honolulu.
"It was a big turnaround," Amona, 48, said of his first lesson with Bishaw. "A light just came on and I found that inner peace I had been looking for."
Amona and Bishaw met while surfing shortly after Bishaw moved to Honolulu in the mid-1990s. Amona already held a black belt in tae kwon do but was forced to quit training for five years because of a severe hip condition that eventually required a full replacement. In the meantime, Amona's old instructor had passed away, leaving Amona with no place to train when he finally was fit to return to martial arts.
Learning the philosophy
"When I met with Sam, he said the first lesson was not a punch or a kick," Amona said. "It was respect."
The word resonated within Amona's size-XXL body. Like Bishaw 25 years earlier, Amona was a warrior weary of fighting. In 20 years of study, he had mastered the moves of tae kwon do but never the philosophy, and that neglect had led to a dangerous faultline in his life.
"What that means," Amona said, "is you become a predator. I would look for any reason to fight. I misused tae kwon do a lot. I'm not proud of the things I did back then."
Amona was so humbled by the realization of all that he had failed to grasp that he surrendered his black belt and began instruction under Bishaw as a white belt. As he worked his way back up the ranks, Amona took to heart lessons that put his formidable skills in perspective.
"A big thing in tae kwon do is being modest, knowing what you're capable of but not using it unless you absolutely have to," he says. "I've had too many bad situations than I can count times when I could have walked away from confrontation but there was that pride."
Today Amona takes pride in helping others find the inner peace that delivered him from a life of violence.
Chance at redemption
Matthew Kauhane is Sam Bishaw is Bryan Amona.
And he is not.
Matthew, 13, has had to live for most of his life not only with the disruptive effects of the attention disorder, but with the biases and misconceptions that accompany it.
His mother, Pua, recites a familiar litany of the disorder's manifestations: lack of focus, disruptiveness, endless visits to the principal.
"I used to get into a lot of trouble at school," Matthew said. "I got into a lot of fights."
Ritalin helped, but only a little and often in doses Pua wasn't comfortable with. She once enrolled Matthew in a karate class, but the experiment was a disaster.
"As they get older, it gets harder," Pua said. "We wanted to keep him in something structured, something that would keep him off the street."
By the time Matthew arrived at Bishaw's dojang in 1999, Bishaw had abandoned the harsh old-school style of instruction in favor of the more nurturing, supportive style developed by the National Association of Professional Martial Arts.
Discipline was still rigidly enforced, but Bishaw also made sure his students had fun. After 30 years of searching, Bishaw had created the place he says he needed when he was a child. In Matthew and other challenged students, Bishaw says he saw his chance at redemption.
"I like the discipline and self-respect that we learn," Matthew said. "In school one time someone wanted to fight me but I walked away. It was easy."
Like Bishaw and Amona before him, Kauhane is finding peace in the still center of chaos. Where a future was once too abstract to conceive, Kauhane now sees himself in service to others, perhaps as a lifeguard, perhaps as a tae kwon do master.
"The thing is," Bishaw said, "you never know what you can do. You don't really know what your potential is. I say, let's find out."