Sometimes your drawbacks are what make you most suitable for your job.

That seems to the case with Aaron Hawk of Mount Pleasant, a karate instructor who remembers what it was like to be picked on and teased because of disabilities.

He says those experiences allow him to relate to kids with similar challenges at Capital Karate of Mount Pleasant.

Hawk had severe Tourette's symptoms when he was in grade school. He could feel the tics and spasms and noises coming on but could do nothing to stop them.

"It was extremely embarrassing, and it was a perfect excuse for kids to pick on me," he said.

Hawk's mother recalls how hard it was for both of them.

"It was pretty bad," Margie Hawk of West Ashley said. "It was very difficult."

'I can really relate'

The symptoms started subsiding around eighth grade, about the time Hawk started taking karate lessons. He also found a counselor who helped him recognize when the twitches were coming and divert them.

Several of his students are autistic or hyperactive, making it difficult for them to focus or interact with people.

"My background gives me a unique ability to understand and connect with people," he said. "I can really relate to where they are coming from in a lot of ways."

Hawk not only has third-degree black belts in two martial-arts disciplines, he also has a counseling degree.

"Everything about our academy is about creating leaders," he said recently at his studio across from Park West. "How am I to take an insecure kid and turn him or her into a leader?"

Hawk has become a bit overweight and roundish lately, and two bad feet from a congenital condition keep him in pain most of the time. But he makes up for it with his infectious enthusiasm.

He constantly calls on students to answer questions while he's teaching, giving them experience speaking in front of others.

"Why do we release our kiai when we kick and jab?"

"Why do we also punch at least three times?"

One students falls down at the end of a kick and gets back up. Hawk deflects the failure into a success.

"Good, I like the way you fought your way back up," he says.

Real world training

He spends part of the class going over concepts, such as respect, from a leadership manual.

"Do not take advantage of others who are weaker than you," the manual says. "Value and honor all people."

But he also insists they master the kicking and punching.

"I want to train people to defend themselves in the real world," he said.

He demonstrates what he calls a school-safe technique for handling an aggressor. The steps are progressive; if the one doesn't end the situation, go to the next. Hold up your hands to show you don't want to fight; yell "leave me alone"; stick your left hand in front of the aggressor's face; grab the aggressor's shoulder to push aside and run out the door.

Then he discusses what he calls save-my-life moves. A student explains that would be when you get separated from your parents at a store and a stranger tries to grab you. In that situation, you grab the aggressor, knee the person hard and run.

Boosting confidence

At the end of the class, a girl comes up front for a gold star for doing all her home chores for a month.

Hawk calls up Sam Ross, 6, and announces him as student of the day for his performance.

But he also acknowledges Ian, Sam's twin brother, who has kept himself under control despite his urges to crowd into Sam's space or bounce off a wall.

"Ian, you did a fantastic job," Hawk says with a smile. "You showed a black-belt attitude."

The twins' mother, Michele Ross, says Ian has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and at first she was afraid to bring him to class.

"We tried another karate class, but he couldn't handle the more rigid environment," she said. "Aaron is good fit for us. He has really helped my son's confidence."

Not all the students are facing such challenges. Chris Maltezos brings his two daughters, Sophia, 5, and Elizabeth, 7, to classes.

He said he chose Hawk's studio because it's close to where they live and because he likes his approach.

All three are wearing green belts. Sophia points to a black belt on a chart.

"Daddy is going to take us to Disney World when we get one of those," she said.

Hawk points out two other disadvantages he had when he was young. He says his father was an abusive alcoholic, and his parents split up shortly before his 7th birthday. That left them dirt poor, as he calls it. They moved from California, where his father was in the Army, to Summerville to be near his mother's parents.

He was able to go to seminary for his counseling degree because a man he met at a conference was impressed enough with him to pay his way.

"I don't want to hide the fact that I'm a minister, but I'm not running Christian karate," he said of his approach.

He always was fascinated with martial arts and started formal training when he was 13 or 14. He taught karate when he was at Middleton High School.

He met his wife, Michelle, when he was in seminary in Louisville, Ky. She's a nurse in the pulmonary unit at the Medical University of South Carolina. They're expecting their first child.

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.