It was just another day at the office for Santa Ana cop Bruce Leamer. He took off his bulletproof vest, laid down his .45-caliber handgun, set aside his billy club and put on his red robe.
Then he showed the children how to kick and punch each other.
Diminutive 9-year-old Brian Garcia explained why someone like himself would show up at Saddleback High School to learn karate from Leamer, a world champion:
"Just in case someday someone might come up to you and see you're little and take advantage of you."
Leamer, who patrols the high school during the day as a uniformed "resource officer," holds karate classes three days a week after school for 20-40 students ages 8-17.
"Other teachers, if you make one mistake, they'll yell at you," Brian said. "He'll help you."
But the karate kids aren't the only ones happy that last spring Leamer established his after-school class.
"We're really thrilled with the program," Saddleback High Principal Nancy O'Connor said. "This was a golden opportunity. The kids see him not only as a school resource officer they can turn to for advice, but as a teacher, a helper and a friend.
"For some of them, this is their avenue of participation. He has been able to involve some kids who were marginal and turned them around. And with others who were shy, he's been able to build self-confidence."
On the wall of the karate classroom is a poster that reads:
"The Creed. I come to you with only karate empty hands. I have no weapons, but should I be forced to defend myself, my principles or honor, should it be a matter of life or death, right or wrong, then here are my weapons, karate, my empty hands."
The 6-feet, 2-inch, 210-pound Leamer is an imposing figure on campus, towering over students in the hallways as they move from class to class. But he looks younger than his 30 years and, with his hair cut in a youthful flattop, Leamer doesn't seem that far removed from his own school days.
As campus resource officer, Leamer is on the school grounds to respond to crimes, such as when youths recently were stealing from student lockers. He's always on the lookout for drug sales on or near the campus. And he serves as a deterrent for those inclined to cause trouble, as well as a confidant for those who simply need someone to talk to.
Leamer views his duty as "mainly to protect the kids from outsiders."
A black belt in karate, Leamer was a member of a five-man Orange County team that last Sunday won the World Karate Assn.'s karate team championship in Las Vegas.
The ground rules for world-class competition are a little less restrictive than in Leamer's classroom.
"If you draw blood, you receive a warning or disqualification," Leamer said of the world championships. Students, on the other hand, are not allowed to strike each other on the head.
If a youngster accidentally whacks another in the face, he must pay a 25-cent fine and do 25 push-ups. The money goes for the class's end-of-the-year banquet and tournament entry fees. The push-ups go to develop muscles. The whole experience goes to develop character and discipline.
On a recent afternoon, while two students sparred with padded hands and feet in the 20-foot-by-20-foot ring, one kept accidentally knocking his opponent in the head. Consequently, he was continually doing push-ups and plunking coins in the kitty.
"Either he's going to be the poorest guy and the strongest guy in the ring, or he's going to learn not to hit people," Leamer quipped to the smiling approval of the students.
"Some (karate) teachers . . . don't stress the mental attitude and good citizenship and when they (students) should and shouldn't use karate," Leamer said.
One student, Lance Boehm, 17, was already a black belt when he enrolled at Saddleback after moving to Santa Ana from Colorado a month ago. The only time Lance used his self-defense skills other than in organized competition was when he confronted a man trying to steal a stereo from his car.
"He took a swing at me, and I blocked it," Lance recalled. "I knocked him clear out" with a back-of-the-hand karate blow.
Leamer said he is not grooming bullies. He has not found any of his students using their newly acquired skills improperly. And Leamer, a five-year police veteran, has never had an occasion himself to use karate on the job.
Many of the high-school-age karate students are involved in other campus clubs, but just one, a water polo player, is on an athletic team, Leamer said.
"I've got every ethnic group: black, Hispanic, Cambodian, Laotian, a German exchange student and one girl, who is probably the most precise in technique.
"I want them to be precise, that's part of the art."
Mary Hwe, a 15-year-old sophomore, knows precisely why she is learning karate.
"In case you get attacked, you can defend yourself.
"And it's fun."