Spring was a formative season for me as an IMPACT instructor. I taught 2 college-bound courses—one 10.5-hour to senior girls and one 12-hour to freshmen-junior girls. At the end of each of these classes, the students were transformed and I was renewed in my commitment to this work. Here are some reflections from the students and some of my thoughts as their instructor.
“The most valuable thing this class taught me was that I do not have to be docile or compliant in situations where I feel uncomfortable or threatened, and I am capable of keeping harm from happening to me.”
Be polite. Don’t be rude. Act like a lady. Don’t be too loud. Be sweet. Smile. You wouldn’t want to make someone feel bad, would you?
We raise girls to be accommodating to other people’s feelings above all else, and then as they get older we chastise them for being victimized. When your default is compliance, it’s much harder to notice when you need to set a boundary and to feel confident in doing that. Seeing the girls I was working with gain the confidence to speak up for themselves in uncomfortable situations after only 10.5 or 12 hours of training was nothing short of remarkable.
Halfway through the class, a light bulb went off. “I never thought of boundaries like that before—how setting boundaries is a way to find out if someone is trustworthy.” YES, I screamed in my head. Set boundaries. Unapologetically. Don’t be concerned with whether someone likes you in that moment. Love YOURSELF. (But if you are concerned, that’s okay; it’s a process; forgive yourself). Fill your life with people who want you to be safe and flourish. A good way to find out who those people are is by setting boundaries and paying close attention to how people respond.
“At the beginning of class, I was really nervous using my voice, but as we went on I continued to get more comfortable being loud. I realized how much power and confidence using my voice gave to me when facing an attacker, and my voice also helped me be more comfortable in all the scenarios we did.”
In most of our classes, we start by teaching physical skills. We keep building on the physical skills as we add the verbal, and then get into more difficult topics like familiar sexual assault and coercive dating partners. We don’t just teach self-defense for these situations; we have discussions around the students’ reactions to the material and how it felt to do the scenario.
One awesome outcome of this approach is that mastering the physical self-defense skills under circumstances that are adrenalizing and realistic is like a confidence injection, and by the time we get to scenarios where strong verbal skills are required, the students know they can handle themselves and you can hear it in their voices. “No” becomes “NO,” and it isn’t just a change in volume—it’s a firm rejection of the way we are treated, the violence we face, and the society that makes it necessary for girls and women and other targeted demographics to take these classes.
“One thing that really surprised me about the class was how much of a supportive and wonderful environment the class was. I didn’t know what I was expecting before starting the class, but I didn’t realize that everyone would really support everyone else in the room. Every time anyone did a scenario, all the girls in the room would cheer for her. It made me feel so much more comfortable putting myself out there in front of the group and trying to do my best in the scenario. I feel so much more bonded with this group of classmates now, and I’m really glad we were able to share this experience.”
Something I see a lot in our classes (and these 2 were no exception), is that as the class progresses, the students become a group. The line of onlookers during scenarios becomes a line of supporters. They sit closer to each other. They comfort each other when material is difficult. As an instructor who is only visiting their schools, I am not privy to what happens to these new bonds after the class ends, but I imagine the girls feel more like comrades than classmates.
On the 4th day of class, I started the day with a review of all the physical skills we had learned. With just a prompt of “ready, GO” the entire group did the eye strike/hit to the groin sequence in the air in perfect synchronization. It was like watching an army of teenage girls prepare for battle with the patriarchy.
At the end of the day, the girls reflected on their experience in the class. There was an overwhelming sentiment of pride—many girls shared the feeling of “we can take care of ourselves” (although the more preferred phrasing of that was, “we can kick some @ss”).
It’s that feeling at the end of a long class that I’m sure will keep me excited about teaching for years to come.