THE HUB: Self-defense meets self-control at Kojo Academy

Stephen Barrett

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

Seated at his desk at Kojo Academy of Taekwondo in Williston, 70-year-old Master Stephen Barrett recalls a story from his younger days, before he obtained master status and rose to the rank of eighth-degree black belt.

As Barrett tells it, one day his taekwondo instructor set a concrete patio block atop two larger cinder blocks and told Barrett to break the patio block with the heel of his palm. He’d never attempted such a feat, but he summoned all his energy and brought his palm crashing down.

The block exploded into tiny fragments.

The instructor then told him to break a stack of two blocks. He complied, followed by stacks of three, four and five blocks.

Smiling, the instructor then told him to break one block. Barrett raised and lowered his arm like before and struck the block. It didn’t budge. After seven unsuccessful attempts, the instructor told him to go home and not come back until he realized why he failed.

“Halfway home, it came to me,” Barrett said. “After I knew I could break five, I didn’t give any respect to the one. That was a valuable lesson. That lesson has taught me to pay attention even to the little things that don’t seem so important.”

At Kojo, such life lessons are as important as learning the proper form of a crescent kick or knife hand block.

“Taekwondo is a microcosm of life in general,” Barrett said. “It’s all about character building.”

A New Hampshire native, Barrett spent eight years in the Navy before moving to Vermont and beginning a 30-year career at IBM. He began his taekwondo studies in 1972 under Grandmaster Duk Sung Son and taught at various venues around Chittenden County before establishing Kojo in 1992.

Barrett said one of the basic tenets of taekwondo, a martial art that originated in Korea, is to engage an opponent in physical combat only as a last resort.

“The ultimate goal of taekwondo is to eliminate fighting,” Barrett said. “A person who becomes proficient in taekwondo feels so confident to handle themselves that they can use their head for something other than a hat rack. They can think and not be emotionally involved.”

He added that self-control is as important as technical proficiency when it comes to advancing to the next belt level.

“We don’t teach the more advanced techniques if you haven’t gone through the process of proving that you have self-control. You have to have it, or there’s chaos,” he said.

Kojo offers taekwondo classes for children as young as 4 through its Little Dragons program, taught by Master Judy Nolin, a fourth-degree black belt. Barrett, who estimated that Kojo currently has about 100 students, personally teaches 15 classes per week.

Barrett said enrollment is open to anyone willing to show proper respect to the discipline of taekwondo and to fellow students.

“I make sure every student that comes through the door is respected. It doesn’t matter who they are. It’s only through their actions while they’re here that that respect can be lost,” he said. “It’s really wonderful. It’s a non-threatening atmosphere, and that’s what I’ve created.”

For more information about Kojo Academy of Taekwondo, visit