ROCKINGHAM — There is a place in Richmond County where even otherwise messy, wild children bow before entering, bow before stepping on and off the mat inside — and bow before the man they are there to see.
That man is James Jeter, aka Master J, who runs American Tae Kwon Do in Rockingham, a martial arts school that teaches what Jeter says modern society no longer does: faith, honor, respect and discipline.
Jeter stands tall with long gray hair and a mustache that hangs off either side of his chin. He has a direct stare and is as deliberate with his movements as he is with his words. His training garb is adorned with a blue field of stars on the shoulders and down the left leg, with red stripes down the right. A Vietnam veteran, Jeter is deeply patriotic.
He trained under a Korean Tae Kwon Do master while living in Osaka, Japan, as a young man and became a black belt when he was 15. He has since taught and trained all over the world and is now a fifth-degree black belt.
He opened his first martial arts school when he was 16 at a time before Bruce Lee movies brought martial arts into the mainstream. Those with romantic notions about what it’s like to train in martial arts are “quickly disappointed” with how intense it is, Jeter said. After Lee became a household name, Jeter said men several years older than him, including law enforcement officers, came to his school but didn’t take him seriously — “until they got on the mat with me.”
His dojang, the Korean word for a martial arts training gym, is in the multi-purpose room of The Hive Recreational Center. A diverse collection of students train on a red and blue mat under a prominent American flag. They recite the Pledge of Allegiance and say a prayer before each class.
As part of its core value system, American Tae Kwon Do is also a community service organization that has raised money for the American Cancer Society, solicited donations of items new mothers need, participates in holiday marches and last month sent students to help clean up trash at Blewett Falls Lake.
The school has also recently taken up a more unconventional community service effort: declaring “war” on bullies in Richmond County, giving its students permission to intervene if they see a student being bullied — peacefully, at first — but if the bully wants to fight, “Take them out,” Jeter said. “Put them right in the emergency room.”
At the end of March, Jeter called out the Richmond County School System for its failure to address the bullying problem citing numerous reports from students and announced that he would be abolishing his school’s number one rule: no fighting.
“I am serving notice to the Richmond County School Board that American Tae Kwon Do is declaring war on bullies,” read Jeter’s Facebook post on March 28. “This will not stop until the education system can control and stop all that hurts these children. If one of your children are one of the bullies then be prepared to have it known to the public because as my students deal with the problem I will post their name.”
Jeter and RCS have said there have not been any fights since the one-sided declaration of war, and the school system has not been in contact with Jeter about his accusations, according to Briana Goins, spokesperson for RCS.
“Richmond County Schools does not condone violence in the name of intervention,” Goins said in an email. “All reports of bullying are taken seriously and investigated by staff members. There have been no reported increases nor decreases in student altercations although we continuously strive to decrease that number.”
(The Daily Journal sought comment from several members of the school board. Only Joe Richardson knew of Jeter, according to his wife, but was unable to comment further as he is recovering from a medical emergency.)
Jill Brown, a Rockingham resident whose 6-year-old son Levi recently joined the school, said Jeter’s new approach to bullying is an “excellent idea.”
“I know bullying goes on,” and it’s “been a concern,” with Levi, she said. Levi is deaf and requires a hearing aid, and Brown said the class structure is helping him build listening skills.
Bryan McLaurin’s 9-year-old son Tristin has been a student of the school for more than a year. McLaurin said he expects his son to help others who are being bullied. He told a story about when Tristin was bullied recently by the son of one of his friends, but after Tristin stood up for himself, the two became best friends. Now, that bully is a student at the school, as well.
Jeter describes what he does as a teacher by telling a story about a French sculptor who started with an enormous boulder and patiently chiseled away the rough edges leaving a beautiful statue. When people saw it and gave him praise for having “created” art, he said,“No, the statue was already there. I’m just chipping the rough pieces away.”
“The biggest change I see in students when they’re in my class is in confidence and discipline,” he added. “Once they have that, there’s nothing they can’t do.”
One of his biggest success stories is that of the man slated to replace him: Chris Ellis.
Raised by his grandparents, Ellis likens Jeter to a father. His grandmother brought him to Jeter when he was 15 after he had been talking about dropping out of school. He had done some martial arts training, but said he only learned how to fight, not the philosophy and discipline behind it and was using it the wrong way, lashing out at the world following his grandfather’s passing.
“He taught me how to control my emotions and to put that hurt … in a better direction,” said Ellis, now 40 and married with four children, three of which are heavily involved in martial arts and the youngest with it in his future. “He teaches you more than how to fight, he actually teaches you how to be a better person.”
Without Jeter, Ellis added, “I’d probably be in jail.”
Ellis is currently a blue belt, and tests in September to move up to brown. It will be another year before he can test for his black belt, which requires a two-and-a-half to three-hour test of everything taught up to that point to pass. Once he passes, Ellis will take over.
“I’m excited that the school’s name will continue … and sad that the torch is being passed,” he said.
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]