What Brought You to the Mar­tial Path?


“How did you get into teach­ing self-de­fense — did some­thing hap­pen to you?” Hap­pen to me? It’s a ques­tion I’ve been asked un­told times. Frankly, it’s an an­noy­ing and telling ques­tion be­cause it as­sumes some­thing ter­ri­ble must have hap­pened. Why else would I — an ed­u­cated woman and self­con­fessed bleed­ing heart — en­cour­age women to nur­ture their killer in­stinct and teach them how to re­fash­ion their bod­ies into weapons?

Then again, given my en­thu­si­asm (see above), it’s a rea­son­able ques­tion. And yes, I have my hap­pen­ing sto­ries. I can eas­ily rat­tle them off — from man­han­dling and vi­o­lent grop­ing to be­ing trapped in a train car by a group of preda­tory men; from near­rape at­tacks, which I fended off, to a home in­va­sion by a knife-wield­ing would-be rapist and maybe killer. They’re all true and very good rea­sons to take up self-de­fense. But … There are the sto­ries we tell, and there is the story be­hind the sto­ries. The one that of­ten lives in the shadow of grander lore and can be traced back to child­hood. To “that mo­ment in child­hood,” wrote Gra­ham Greene, “when the door opens and lets the fu­ture in.” I KNOW MY MO­MENT. The mem­ory came back to me one day dur­ing a ra­dio in­ter­view, greet­ing me like a bell in the dis­tance wait­ing to be rung. “It” was born on a frosty winter’s night in the ashes of fear, fu­eled by a young girl’s de­sire to save her­self, her friend and her friend’s hat.

This mem­ory has be­come a touch­stone for my teach­ing. It hap­pened like this:

I was 7, and it was a brisk winter’s day. The snow-cov­ered earth crunched un­der­foot, but the sun was out, shin­ing across its slick white sur­face. My friend Jen­nifer and I de­cided to walk to a creek in a wooded area near my home. When we ar­rived, two boys, big­ger and older, maybe 9 or 10, ap­proached and then ϐ Ǥ ǡ " ϐ Ǥ Ǥ The air be­tween us turned bit­terly cold and still. I knew we were in trou­ble.

One of them bran­dished a knife, threat­en­ing to cut us. I re­mem­ber the blade, how it gleaned in the af­ter­noon sun as he waved it. The sec­ond boy grabbed me, pulling us apart. “I’m ϐ ǡdz be­fore clutch­ing a hunk of my dirty blond hair.

Flick! Whoosh! It was the sound of his boxy sil­ver lighter set to the high­est ϐ ǡ Ǥ my hair siz­zle and burn, and I couldn’t es­cape his grasp. Blow, blow, blow was all l could think to do. Each time the ϐ Ȅ ǡ from blow­ing and pant­ing — was fol ϐ Ǥ Dz it!” I pleaded. Each time I tried to pull away, he pulled me closer, char­ring more hair, singe­ing my scalp.

I don’t re­mem­ber a word he said. I just re­mem­ber the look on his face as he toyed with me in a cruel game of cat and mouse. I was light­headed, grow­ing dizzier by the mo­ment, and I wanted des­per­ately to be home. Maybe it was that thought that en­abled me to break free and scram­ble to a clear­ing. THAT’S WHEN I spot­ted Jen­nifer, the pom­pom on her long winter stock­ing hat bounc­ing up and down as she wres­tled with the big­ger boy in the creek. I re­mem­ber stand­ing there like a mar­ble statue, frozen in fear, watch­ing my best friend get roughed up, ϐ the icy stream.

Then with­out warn­ing, our young ter­ror­ists-in-train­ing took off like a cou­ple of wild crit­ters who’d had their ϐ Ȅ Ǥ big av­enue and ran down the street. I " Ǥ - boy, not me, but that was one home­stretch where my chunky lit­tle legs hit the pave­ment as fast as hers.

Later that night af­ter things at home calmed down, I sat in a warm bub­bleϐ Ǥ hap­pened and why. I didn’t have the words for it, but I knew I’d been ini­ti­ated, as if I’d crossed some thresh­old. “Wel­come to fear!” I imag­ined it say­ing, as if I knew it would be a given, a nat­u­ral part of the fe­male land­scape. Like the even­tual menses and breasts, so too there would be fear. First it will be of boys, and then it will be of men. THE TRUTH of this would wax and wane over the years. And I would come to know fear and ter­ror in­ti­mately again, each in­ci­dent pro­pel­ling me fur­ther down this path and into the heart of self-de­fense.

Adult pas­sions of­ten can be traced to early be­gin­nings, to an in­ci­dent or de­sire de­posited into a fer­tile young mind. That day in 1963 would prove to be such a fate­ful be­gin­ning: The young boy who scared the be­je­sus out of me had un­know­ingly lit some­thing far more than my tresses.

That night while try­ing to scrub away what had hap­pened, a new thought and yearning arose from my fear: Why ǯ ϐ ǫ kicked his scrawny ass and res­cued my­self, my friend and her beloved hat?

That was the im­age that put a smile on my face. In essence, I had stolen his ϐ Ǥ ǯ Ǥ It wasn’t un­til decades later when I was in­ducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame that I re­al­ized I’d be­come a ϐ Ǥ THIS STORY is a pal­pa­ble, heart­felt re­minder. It serves me when teach­ing women to de­fend them­selves, so I visit it of­ten.

Like me, you no doubt have sto­ries ϐ Ǥ to re­call, while oth­ers may have been dis­missed or just plain for­got­ten. To stay con­nected with the spirit and the truth of what brought you to the mar­tial path, think back and in­quire within. You may be sur­prised.

“I’m gonna set you on fire,” he growled be­fore clutch­ing a hunk of my dirty blond hair.

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