Experience overseas provides Russell with drive to learn more
As a young man growing up in Dekalb, Miss., Jay Russell was certain of only thing. He wanted to leave Dekalb, Miss. And while his departure from the small town would not come for another two years, his journey found its roots Meridian in 1987.
It was then, as a 15-year-old boy, that Russell walked into a martial arts school for the first time. He enrolled in classes and began studying Shotokan karate, practicing the art for nearly three years before his time to leave the Magnolia State finally arrived.
“Two weeks after I graduated (high school), that’s when I joined the Navy, back in 1999,” Russell said. “I was interested in really getting out of Dekalb, Miss., and getting out and seeing the world, and (the Navy) granted my wish. My entire four years, I was overseas.”
Russell, who has since traveled to more than 20 countries, including Japan and the Philippines, spent the first year-and-a-half of his naval enlistment as a stinger missile gunner.
During Desert Storm, he found himself stationed in Bahrain, a nation just off the coast of Saudi Arabia.
“It made me grow up very fast,” Russell recalled. “I had a romanticized view of what the military was going to be like. Going into a combat situation so early and so young really showed me the reality of it.”
Following his term as a gunner, Russell became a postal clerk, where he spent the final two-and-a-half years of his service. Russell spent that time stationed in Yokosuka, Japan, where he rediscovered his passion for the martial arts.
“A lot of the Navy bases (in Japan) have martial arts clubs,” Russell explained.
What he found upon his first day at the Japanese martial arts club was much different than what he had learned in Meridian.
On his first day in the Japanese club, Russell was pitted against a more advanced combatant, one whose intent was to eradicate his desire to learn more of the art.
He soon learned that pairing new students with tougher, more experienced individuals is customary in Japan and serves as a means of determining how much fledgling participants desire to learn the art.
Russell trained until receiving his honorable discharge, advancing to high brown belt before returning home.
“One of the things I’ll always regret is not talking to my instructor and seeing if he would test me (for a black belt) early,” Russell said, “but I was ready to go home.”
When he returned home in 1993, Rusell attempted to find a martial arts school similar to the one he had come to love in Japan. Unable to do so, he proceeded to train on his own.
It was not until he returned to the Black Belt region that Russell, now an English teacher at Demopolis High School, found a martial arts school to call home.
“I took my first class from Mr. Ron Ross over in York,” Russell said.
As he began studying martial arts under Ross, Russell was wrapping up his master’s degree in education and quickly found that his love of one would help feed his success in the other.
“The martial arts help me to maintain discipline,” said Russell, who received his black belt and entered the training instructor program in 2006. “Teaching high school helps me understand structuring classes and maintaining discipline at the martial arts school.”
Russell befriended and ultimately married Ross’s daughter, Rhonda. The couple now runs Ross Taekwondo in Demopolis.
“We’re trying to do something special,” Russell said. “We are more about helping people achieve something, helping them better themselves on a personal level.”
Now, it is the sum of his experiences that help to make Russell an effective teacher both at the high school and the martial arts school.
“My experiences in the military, seeing some of the things I’ve seen, has helped me to kind of relate to the kids,” Russell said. “I try to get that across to the kids, just how fortunate they are to be where they’re at. Out of all the things I’ve done, teaching is the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had.”
If you can just get through to one kid every school year, you’re doing something.”