Nestled unobtrusively near the entrance to Box Canyon in West Hills, Twin Dragons Martial Arts School is not the easiest place to find.
Ever since instructor David Howell opened the school three years ago, Jimmy Piano, 15, has been aware of its existence. Until this year, he was just never in any particular hurry to get there. Piano finally found Howell in January, amid a school year in which he twice had to switch schools because of gang problems and narrowly escaped a jail sentence.
"The first thing I told him was there is no gang besides my gang," said Howell. "My gang is the only gang."
After six months under Howell, Piano won a state championship in the white-belt division, and, along with 12 fellow tae kwon do students from Twin Dragons, qualified for the National Junior Olympics in Fort Worth, Tex. To finish off this would-be movie script, Piano won a gold medal in the white-belt division, one of a trio of Howell students to take home gold.
For a martial arts school that has been in existence for such a short time, such a feat is practically unheard of. All told, six youngsters won at least one medal. Richie Barron, 11, of West Hills, won a silver in forms and a bronze in sparring; the other five--including gold medalists Piano of Canoga Park, Jalaal Abdulla, 11, and Matthew Sotebeer, 8--won for sparring.
"It's interesting because I don't stress fighting," Howell said. "I stress discipline, hard work, and believing in yourself. We only spar one day of the week, Friday. The rest of the time we work on proper technique."
The first time Piano sparred in a full-contact tae kwon do match, he said, he was hit hard and yet thought nothing of it. But then Piano was not your average teen-aged tae kwon do neophyte.
"A lot of kids are scared of full-contact sparring," Piano said. "I think I have done well because I'm not scared. I got into trouble on the streets and almost went to jail, so this doesn't scare me."
In the ninth grade at El Camino Real High, Piano hung out with a small group of kids who were bused in from outside the Valley. Piano would soon discover that they were members of the Bloods gang, that it would be unwise to befriend them. Piano didn't care. Soon, playing football after school turned into other infinitely more dangerous activities later in the day.
After a couple of months of doing "everything," according to Piano, he transferred to a junior high school in Chatsworth. While Piano said he was never a full-fledged member of the Bloods, he might as well have been.
In the two-tone gang fiefdom--red symbolizing the Bloods, blue the rival Crips--Piano had "enemies at every school." His junior high, according to Piano, turned out to have a large Crips population. Two months of rumbling finally ended for Piano one night when a purported Crips member was beaten up, his clothes stolen.
Piano was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault and battery, despite his contention that the real culprit was a friend who bore a resemblance to him. Regardless, Piano concedes that he probably would have gone to jail were it not for Howell.
A week earlier, disenchanted with a karate school in Canoga Park, Piano had sought out Howell with the intent of enrolling in Twin Dragons. It was at this time that he left the junior high in Chatsworth and began attending Coutin, a private school in Canoga Park.
"I needed to get straightened out and Mr. Howell went to the mat for me," Piano said. "I remember being real scared, thinking I was going to jail. I had been on probation but never thought I would go to jail. That's when I decided to start a new life."
The court placed Piano in Howell's custody, and now Piano must report to Howell every day. The two have developed a close relationship, and the pride is visible on Howell's face when he talks about Piano.
Reluctant to unnecessarily burden a teen-ager, Howell kept Piano's past secret from the other students until he was sure Piano had turned his life around. Now Piano, the eldest of the 13 Twin Dragons students who went to the Junior Olympics, finds himself in a big-brother role--"I try to lead by example," he said shyly.
"When I first met Jimmy," Howell said, "he was in a lot of trouble and he was failing all his classes at school. But he's a good kid, always was--it was just the environment that he was brought up in. Now, six months later, he is passing all of them."
Howell, raised in a predominantly Korean neighborhood in South Los Angeles, learned hapkido, a martial art that emphasizes flipping one's opponent through the air, at an early age, and earned his black belt when he was 17.
He then turned to tae kwon do, a full-contact martial art, and went on to a distinguished career in which he attained the rank of second-degree black belt.
Howell, who enjoyed a one-year career with the USFL Los Angeles Express in 1982, has found what he wants to do for the rest of his life. He has trained many of the Los Angeles Raiders, including Marcus Allen. He said he has even turned down movie offers, including Eric Roberts' role in last year's karate flick, "The Best of the Best."
"I have over 100 kids in my school, and I teach about 90 percent of them," said Howell, who is married and has a 3-year-old daughter. "This is what I do, this is what I love. I could be in a movie or coach at the national level, but then I would be away from my school and the kids too long.
"Kids do what you do, not what you say. That's why my kids love me, because I don't tell them, I show them. I don't want to be their idol, I want to be their friend."
While many karate and tae kwon do schools stress fighting, Howell, who speaks the language well enough to hold his own in a Korean restaurant, spends a great deal of time teaching his students about Korean culture. He has taught them some Korean words and taken most of them to a Korean restaurant.
Howell requires all students to bring in their report cards from school. Anyone failing a class not only is barred from testing for the next belt level but is given a "free, private lesson" in tae kwon do.
"Nobody wants one of those," said Jamie Smith, a gold medalist in the state championships. "Mr. Howell is a very nice teacher and he is very tough. He makes sure you do things right and he is very strict, but he loves you."
While Howell is content with his lot, most of his students dream of the 1996 Olympics. Under Howell, many have discovered what a powerful and attainable dream that is, but one particular student has known all along. Since he was 5.
Ten years ago, Jimmy Piano sat in his first-grade class, writing down what he wanted to be when he grew up. On a piece of paper that his mom still has, Jimmy, who remembers watching karate on television, wrote that he wanted to be in the Olympics in karate.
So, not only did he know where Twin Dragons was located, Piano really did want to get there all along.
"I can go anywhere and I can do anything," Piano said. "As long as I stick with Mr. Howell."