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I Tried It

I Tried It: Self-defense class

The first rule of this fight club: Use your voice.

By Erin Kennedy

“Block. Parry. Straight punch.”

I’ve never thrown a real punch. I’m not a gym person. I only run if absolutely necessary. But here I am, every Monday night, “circling up” with my classmates on the second floor of a senior center.  

“High hammer fist. Sweep kick. Groin strike.”

We’re learning how to get out of a choke hold, how to create space when backed into a corner, and how to escape the grip of someone stronger than us.

The women in this program known as R.A.D. — for Rape Aggression Defense — are here for many reasons. To be prepared if approached while working late at night, walking home alone, traveling to a dangerous country. I’m here so I can do more than use my commanding mom voice to protect myself and my family.

Beyond a set of doors, our aggressors await — three trained police officers in specialized protective suits.

It turns out that the first rule of this fight club is to use your voice. But I’m not loud enough. Neither are my classmates, who sometimes giggle through our awkwardness: a petite dentist, a mother and her high school daughter, a PTO mom who works nights, a grandmother preparing to travel alone. Our patient instructor shouts, “Defensive stance!” and we yell, “Stay back!”

With every punch and kick to a boxing pad we yell “No!” If we’re not convincing enough, we do it again. I’ve told my kids that I’m learning to fight bad guys, so I wonder which badass hero I should channel to make my punches land with more power: Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Black Widow? Wonder Woman?

Simulation night arrives. I am covered in pads — knee pads, elbow pads, a chest pad — gloves, and a caged helmet. So much for flexibility or sharp elbows. Beyond a set of doors, our aggressors await — three trained police officers in specialized protective suits. The first scenario is to pretend I’m walking to my car. My goal is to keep the suit that grabs me at bay, and then to escape. And I’m warned that if I don’t yell with each punch, he won’t let me go.

As I stand on my mark, I am aware of how small I feel as the three men tower over me. I won’t know which one will be my aggressor until I start walking. The intimidating red padded suits obscure their faces. They taunt me, often all at once. “What time is it?” “Do you want to be my friend?” “Hey, where are you going?”

Then one of them grabs my wrist.

In the moment, I’m not Buffy, Black Widow, or Wonder Woman. But thanks to my training, I don’t have to pretend to be someone else. I know what to do. After several high hammer fists to free my arm, I mostly punch and yell “No!” Instructors along the perimeter shout “Kick!” so I kick. I think my aggressor is smiling behind his cage mask as I punch his face repeatedly, but it’s tough to tell.

My hands are shaking, but I get in line for the next scenario. This time, I’m grabbed from behind and lifted off the ground. I thrash my body, headbutt my aggressor with the back of my helmet, and turn around to start punching. When a whistle blows, we pause our faceoff so my dangling arm pad can be reattached. The sudden interruption reminds me that we’re in a controlled environment. Still, I keep a wary eye on my opponent, who seems grateful for the break. I quickly resume my defensive stance and yell “Stay back!” when the whistle blows again.

I opt out of the third scenario because I’m emotionally and physically spent. But I am in awe of the others who fight their way through the last challenge. We all cheer when one woman puts a suit in a headlock — he is helpless (and probably grateful for the helmet) as she delivers multiple upper cuts to his head. It’s not a move we had learned in class. But Wonder Woman emerged.

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Erin Kennedy is a writer based in Boston.


Illustration by Dom McKenzie

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