Karate Kids Toe the Line : Van Nuys: At Cecil Peoples' studio, self-discipline, responsibility and good study habits are taught along with martial arts.


The karate instructor peruses the young students standing at attention before him. "Who kicked some butt today?" he shouts. "Did you kiss your mother today? Your father? Your brother?"

After each question, hands fly up and the students respond "Yes, sensei ," using the Japanese word for teacher.

What are you going to grow up to be? the sensei asks. A doctor, says one. An astronaut, says another. One stammers. "Gimme 10," the teacher commands. The boy hits the floor and starts doing pushups.

It's just another night at the Cecil Peoples karate studio in Van Nuys, where kids from preschool to college age come to learn the art of self-defense. But that's not all they learn.

For most of the 17 years that Peoples has run his own studio, the 44-year-old martial arts expert has acted variously as baby-sitter, surrogate parent, tutor and mentor to his students.

It's not unique for karate instructors go beyond merely teaching the ancient art of self-defense to instill in their students discipline and a sense of responsibility.

But Peoples takes it a step further. He counsels his students--many of whom come from broken homes or single-parent families--to stay off drugs and out of gangs. His students lug their schoolbooks and homework assignments with them to his studio, where parents and older students help coach them in difficult subjects. When students have no homework, Peoples reads with them or has them write him a letter.

His students are required to bring in their report cards, and he hands out "Student of the Month" awards. Peoples even watches students at his house if their parents can't afford baby-sitters.

"He's not motivated by money like many others are," says Darren Lavelle, one of Peoples' longtime students and a 1992 USC graduate. Lavelle now spends his evenings tutoring younger students at the karate studio and says of Peoples: "He's really an unsung hero."

But it was practicality as much as altruism that first inspired Peoples to take a greater role in his students' lives. Unlike karate studios in more affluent areas, Peoples' tiny, storefront school is in a decidedly unglamorous Van Nuys neighborhood and he realized that he had to compete with the pull of the street to keep his students coming to class.

He had to help them succeed in life to give them a chance to succeed on the mat.

He began by sitting in on some of their school classes and making suggestions to their teachers. Peoples asked, for example, that some elementary school teachers grade his students on such criteria as "Follows directions" and "Polite and respectful."

"In the beginning," Peoples admits, "it was a problem for some teachers. There was some resistance."

But Dee West, who teaches first grade at Liberty Christian School in Arleta, says that Peoples almost always overcomes teachers' initial apprehensions. She credits Peoples with helping one of her former students, now in the sixth grade, earn higher grades and stay out of trouble.

On a recent night at Peoples' studio, parents watch from a cramped entryway and a small set of bleachers as their children kick and punch in choreographed rhythm. Some students are reading or working on school assignments in between workouts.

Kenneth Carline of Sylmar says that sending his 9-year-old son, J.R., a brown belt, to Peoples' classes "makes him be more responsible and do the things he has to do, like housework and homework. If he doesn't do it, he can't come here and this is his first love. He'll do anything to keep coming."

Later, when a class of older kids takes the floor, Peoples points to Lorie Gutierrez, a 15-year-old Canoga Park High School sophomore. He says he fought long and hard to keep her out of a gang, a battle he nearly lost. "Me and him have gotten into fights," Lorie admits. But a year ago, she earned her black belt and says she's now committed to staying on track.

"There are temptations," Lorie says. "Now I think about it twice and I think about the consequences."

Peoples charges between $30 and $60 per month for unlimited class time--far less than other karate studios in the area. Even so, he says he has never turned anyone away because they couldn't afford to pay. Some of the more well-to-do parents, he adds, often help pay for students from low-income homes.

"Cecil is one of the top martial artists in the world," says Bill Poett, owner of Conejo Valley Karate Academy in Westlake Village. "If he were to move into a more affluent area, he'd be extremely successful."

Bill Parent, owner of Granada Hills Karate, says that Peoples sticks it out because "the karate school is Cecil's life. He's kind of a savior to some of these people."

Peoples took up karate as a teen-ager, shortly after he moved to Los Angeles, where he found much tougher streets than in his native Alabama. "When I took that first lesson, there was no doubt," he says. "I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life."

For many years Peoples worked as an instructor for his sensei , Bill Ryusaki, who ran a studio in North Hollywood. In 1975, Peoples set up shop for himself. Today he has 110 regular students, most under 21.

Until a year ago, Peoples also drove a school bus during the day, but says he quit that job to devote himself full-time to the studio. Peoples' wife, Noemi, an auditor for Lamps Plus, is also a black belt and helps run the karate studio. One of Peoples' sons, Skewee, 24, is an instructor at the studio. His other son, Brian, 23, is away at college.

Despite the financial sacrifices, Peoples says his work has payoffs. He recalls tracking down a student who had begun hanging out with a gang. Peoples and the boy's father literally grabbed the boy off the street and took him back to class.

The boy now attends karate classes regularly, avoids the gang and plans to graduate next spring from San Fernando High, where he is a track star. That, Peoples says, makes him feel "like a proud papa."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World