LINCOLN CITY — At an “old-school” gym where children in a kids’ karate class learn disabling “knife-hand” strikes, piston-like sidekicks and swift jabs, class begins with a move rarely seen these days: The Pledge of Allegiance.
“It’s surprising to me that so many first-time students don’t know the words,” reflected Robert Dempewolf, the black-belt instructor and owner of Taft Athletic Club, a 24-hour gym located at 4744 SE Highway 101. “Something’s missing in our fabric, and we’re trying to repair that.”
Like an old battle flag, patriotism seems to be fraying at the edges these days. But Dempewolf, a former U.S. Army Ranger who began his study of the martial arts in 1974 and earned a first-degree black belt in 1980, asserts that pledging to the U.S. flag instills a sense of purpose in his young charges.
“There’s a lot of entitlement in the world today,” he said. “Saying the pledge reminds us there are bigger duties in life than self-gratification.”
According the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, children are no longer required to cite the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary school classrooms. The right of a student to refrain from the pledge is written into state law, ORS 339.875, which provides children with “the opportunity to salute the United States flag at least once each week of the school” while allowing them to opt out “in respectful silence.”
Lincoln County School District officials were unavailable for comment on the controversial matter, but Dempewolf claimed that simple credos such as the pledge and a “Student Creed” performed before each class are “the foundations” of responsible martial arts.
“I will build confidence and character through self-discipline and self-esteem,” goes the creed, recited in unison by a dozen students ranging in ages from eight to 13. “I will be truthful in my dealings with others and will treat them with respect and sincerity. I will not use my abilities to harm another person except to protect myself and others.”
“Goal setting” is the main thing students learn, he added, earning promises from each student to start their day at home by making their beds.
Dempewolf is unabashedly patriotic, with photographs and citations from his U.S. Army career and other exploits hanging in his office at the gym.
“I’ve been to 68 countries around the world, and I’ve never seen anything like the United States of America,” he asserted. “There’s no place on the planet with so much prosperity mixed with so much freedom and opportunity.”
Dempewolf said it typically takes up to five years to earn a black belt, but claims the “time flies by” during the pursuit. Children’s classes are Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5 p.m.; adult classes are Mondays and Wednesdays at 6 p.m.
“It’s not about sidekicks and how tough you are,” he insisted. “The black-belt life is about building self-esteem, confidence and respect for others.”
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