I was in tenth grade, relaxing with friends in my high school quad, when two rival gang members hurtled toward us. Of course I had seen school yard brawls, but this was different. These two were muscular, raging, violent, and they knew how to hurt each other. Fear has an odd influence on memory, and I carry the next few minutes as disjointed still life photography. I remember their haircuts. I remember the crowd screaming. I remember that both wore jeans. I remember the thud of pounding meat, each time a fist connected. I remember when the winning hit smashed his opponent’s face, and the explosion of bright crimson. I remember my surprise because the “winner” was the smaller of the two.
More than a decade later, I enrolled in a women’s self-defense class called “Basics.” Most of us had never thrown a punch, and we didn’t have a clue how to fight. Our two teachers worked together, coaching us. During every “assault,” one stood by our side shouting instructions, while the other “attacked” us, dressed head-to-toe in protective gear so we could fight without sending him to the emergency room.
Until that point, whenever I had watched a fight — TV, movies, plays — I saw only chaos. Flying fists, flailing kicks, careening bodies. To my complete surprise, by the second self-defense class, I could break down the maelstrom into structured pieces. I could spot openings, moments when I could step in to protect myself. Every class, our teachers repeated the basics: when you find an opening, commit 100%. Don’t give up, ever. It’s okay to be scared. Even if you’re fighting by yourself, you’re not alone.
Now, more than 25 years later, I find myself entering a different kind of battle, facing an unprecedented situation in my homeland. I look around and see my fellow citizens under assault, and I will not be a passive bystander. As a woman, I too am under assault. But I know self-defense and even in this unfamiliar arena, stepping forward with non-violent resistance, those “basic” teachings are more relevant than ever.
Wait for your opening. When you step in, commit 100%. Different people choose different ways to fight, but you’re still on the same team. Yes, you might get hurt in the struggle but no, that doesn’t mean the fight is over. If you’re knocked down, you can fight with equal strength from the ground. You can fight through pain. A fight, especially a prolonged fight, is emotionally and physically exhausting, so don’t forget to take care of yourself. It’s okay to be scared. You’re not alone. Don’t give up, ever.
And from that gang fight in high school so long ago: the smaller fighter, in the end, can still triumph.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, and the power of friendship. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written in support of same-sex parents, to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.
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