“We’re not training them to fight. We’re training them to not be victims.”
That’s how Board of Education member Kathleen Lynch explained to her colleagues the purpose of martial arts training that has been offered to juniors and seniors at Shelter Island School this spring.
The aim, Ms. Lynch said, is to prepare students for the wider world they would soon enter beyond the relative safety of Shelter Island.
In early April, the junior and senior girls took classes at the gymnasium with Sensei Michelle Del Giorno of Sag Harbor’s Epic Martial Arts and her student, Emily Nill of Pierson High School.
Last week it was the junior and senior boys who took to the mats with Ms. Del Giorno certain they would take the training just as seriously as the girls had. She was right. The one difference, she said before starting, was to get the boys involved in some physical exercises to calm them down and help them focus.
While some stretched quietly, a few were more boisterous as they arrived at the gymnasium for the morning sessions. But jumping jacks and other exercises quickly calmed them.
Only two of the young men — Will Garrison and Darien Hunter — had been exposed to martial arts training, but all seemed as eager as the girls had been to learn. None expressed an aggressive approach or behaved like they thought they were already tough enough to protect themselves.
“It gives you confidence,” Alex Hernandez said.
“Cool,” was how Joshua Green viewed the lessons.
Some of the girls popped into the gym to watch and expressed disappointment that there weren’t additional classes for them.
Ms. Del Giorno, in teaching the boys how to protect themselves told them to “be able to think on the fly in any situation. Your emotional well being is also a part of your self defense. Keep your emotions in check.”
If a few boys at the outset were just wrestling to get the better of one another, with practice they became increasingly adept at the maneuvers they were being taught. The lessons were similar to what Ms. Del Giorno taught the girls, urging the boys to be aware of their surroundings and know where exits were to escape a bad situation.
For both boys and girls, it’s never “engage and fight,” she said, but learning to get the upper hand and escaping.
“Have compassion for the attacker and always try to be the peace maker,” Ms. Del Giorno said. In many situations, the aggressor may be someone known to the would-be victim and that’s all the more reason not to want to hurt that person, but to calm him down.
“Think it through,” she said. “Don’t sink down to the attacker’s level and keep your emotions in check.”
Through several types of maneuvers, she taught them how to reverse the situation with someone who may initially have them pinned to the floor. They learned to get on their feet as quickly as possible and race for an escape route.
“It’s all about keeping your distance,” Ms. Del Giorno said.