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August 10, 2007

Defend Yourself

    Shara Z., a soon-to-be junior at Northwestern University and one of Teen Ink's interns wrote this week's "Extra Ink."

   I was convinced that my mother had taken it too far. She was worried about my upcoming study abroad trip to Argentina, China, and India, and she had good reason; I didn't speak the languages, know my way around, or know the families I would be living with. Training me to eat spicy foods was one thing. But making me take a self-defense course for four hours at a time where you had to beat up a man as he pretended to rape you? It seemed like overkill.

    Although I was originally angry that my mom won our argument, I am proud to say that I officially graduated three days ago and now I can kick your butt. No, I'm kidding (sort of), but taking a self-defense class through the nonprofit organization IMPACT was one of the most empowering experiences that I have ever had.

   IMPACT is a nonprofit organization with branches across the country that teaches self-defense to women, children, men, high school students, and families in homeless shelters. They even go across the world to teach free classes to people who live in dangerous areas.

    Although there are thousands of classes offered nationwide, I think it is IMPACT's philosophy that really made this particular class successful. The founders realized that although many people can give the air a good side-thrust kick or hit a practice pad really hard with their elbow, it's quite a different experience when you're actually being attacked. When you're scared, you get a rush of adrenaline that makes your body work really well, but your brain -- not so much. If you're not used to fighting with adrenaline, your body won't subconsciously know what to do when your brain isn't working right. If you practice moves at only half-strength, your body won't automatically defend itself with your fullest power. If you're not used to hearing the vulgar comments that often come with assaults, your limbs won't work properly. Basically -- you'd be in trouble. And so at IMPACT, they want you to not only learn the techniques, but practice them when you're in an adrenalized state. And so they scare you.

    I was definitely scared. During the first class, when we saw the male instructor covered from head-to-toe in black padding, wearing a football helmet covered with four-inches of high density foam and duct tape with giant mesh patches in front of his eyes so he looked like a football-playing alien, I was scared. The first time he attacked me from the front, I was scared. The second time he attacked me from the front, I was scared. And when we did rape simulations . . . from the front, back, with freaky props . . . I was scared. When we did attacks from behind, when we learned all about verbal techniques, and the character swore and said sick things and tried to scare us and we had to scream "NO" at the top of our lungs, I was scared. I was so scared.

    But here's the thing: I became comfortable in my fear. In fact, I became confident in my fear. Because I now know that no matter how scared I am, and no matter what someone could say to me or do to me to try to catch me off guard, I will be able to keep my cool and know how to respond.

    Hopefully, I will never have to use the physical skills that I learned. My instructors stressed over and over that physical fighting is a last resort, always leave if you can or use words to try to get out of the situation. But even so, I know I can do it if I have to. This class gave me so much confidence that I didn't even know I was missing. Now I can take on a 6 foot 2 attacker -- why can't I take on all the unknowns that studying abroad will bring? Why can't I confront an unfair teacher, a friend who is using me, someone crossing a boundary? Every time I do, I know I'll hear my classmates cheering for me, just like they did each time I stepped on the mat to do a simulation. And it was so amazing to see all of them grow as well. You could literally see the transformations in my classmates' bodies after five weeks. They just looked -- brighter. Lighter, somehow.

    And now, just three things are left unsaid:

1) Fine, Mom, you were right. Thanks.

2) To find out more about the IMPACT organization or to find a class near you, go to http://www.prepareinc.com.

3) Damn it feels good to be a gangsta. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

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