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From kickboxing to teaching

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 22, 2010 - Earnest Hart Jr. knew he needed to go outside St. Louis to make his mark, but he also always planned to return.

The former World Kickboxing champion grew up in the Tiffany neighborhood of the city and attended Roosevelt High School. He started martial arts training as a young teen and won his first World Kickboxing title at age 21.

Martial arts gave Hart a safe haven. Some of his contemporaries turned to gangs to find identity and a sense of belonging. Hart, 55, found that at his dojos. He and other students there shared the hunger to attain the same goal, to earn a black belt. Martial arts taught Hart the need to have a thick skin and self-respect and how one doesn't need to succumb to violence to prove a point.

In his words, "Once you learn how to fight, you don't have to fight."

Hart's return to St. Louis after his fighting and acting career wound down did not include the word "retirement." He wants to reach out to others and share the lessons he's learned.

Hart stresses a message of preventative measures in teaching youth. He works with several schools in the St. Louis area, ranging from private schools in the county such as Villa Duschene to public schools such as Parkway and inner-city schools like City Academy. He believes building confidence and self-esteem in young children is a way to keep them from joining gangs and engaging in violence.

He quotes Teddy Roosevelt to illustrate how his role in teaching children the principles of martial arts are just as important as other classroom lessons: "To educate a man in mind and not morals is to educate a menace to society."

He's not gotten a foot in the door in the regular St. Louis public schools, but he'd like to. He says that the problems in the city are not specific to St. Louis. For too many children around the country, he says, the education systems have set standards too low. Not enough is demanded from teachers, parents and children. He believes that, to improve an education system, much of the work starts at home with children learning to understand the importance of education, and in return, respect themselves and the authority figures aiding them along the way.

In his school programs, Hart likes to keep lessons fun and interactive. And they are not all keyed on martial arts. For example, he teaches his students how to prepare for the "real world" through role-playing job interviews and other scenarios in which students learn the importance of conducting themselves in a presentable manner. As Hart says, "Put your best foot forward when you need to get ahead."

Hart's ideas for addressing problems with school-age children revolve around a communal approach to fundamental change in the mindset of the youth and those raising them. Perhaps it takes a village to raise a child, he says, but the village and the child must work together to better that village. In turn, the child will develop both the self-respect and respect for others that Hart sees as integral to developing a successful next generation of children. With or without the martial arts skills, he says that the lessons of motivation and strong character are vital.

His career as a professional kickboxer and martial artist took him all over the world: performing for the emperor of Japan and teaching the Imperial Guard his own style of self defense -- the only non-Japanese to ever be given such honor. He also demonstrated martial arts for Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco and acted in several movies. One of his stunt roles - "Batman & Robin" - let him enter the pages of his favorite childhood comic.

Rebecca Lowell, a student at Columbia University, was an intern with the Beacon this summer.

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