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This is the first guest post to the Society Nine blog. It was submitted by a member of our community, Beverly Baker, reminiscing on the day that she found combat sports and began a lifelong journey of empowerment. Thank you Beverly for taking the time to share your story and for being a member of our community!
As I pass the six or so scruffy young guys loitering at the corner on my way into the convenience store, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. A voice in my head, a voice I’d learned to trust from my very first martial arts class, says, “Watch these guys on your way out.” It’s been over 25 years since my first martial arts class, but I can still hear that voice in my head...
I apologized for everything that first class. I apologized for making mistakes. I apologized for not understanding what we were doing. I apologized for striking too hard. I apologized for striking too soft. I apologized for apologizing.
I was 17, a little awkward, a little shy, and just beginning to sort out my place in the world. I grew up in the ’80s in a picturesque suburb of Philadelphia and at that time I didn’t have a lot of strong females showing me how to make my way. I bumbled into my first martial arts class at a tae kwon do school and lucked into a great first teacher. There weren’t many women or girls at the school, but it didn’t matter to him. He didn’t discriminate based on gender, nor was he the creeper type that preys on female students that we’ve all come across at some point.
My first teacher was a demanding teacher, but he somehow understood my female teenage brain and taught me much more than physical techniques. As I trained that first day, he persistently told me to stop apologizing. And, as I continued to train over the coming weeks and months, my tendency to say I was sorry started to fall away. I discovered that failure wasn’t a big deal when I didn’t have to apologize for it. I developed the courage to try new things on the mats and in life. I didn’t feel bad about mistakes. Spinning kicks and breaking bricks led to new martial arts styles, breaking up with my high school sweetheart and moving 1,600 miles away to Texas, I began to do things I had only dreamed of before.
My evolution was underway and that first lesson had fostered a newfound courage. But it took another 10 years, and six or so scruffy young guys, for me to realize how deeply rooted this culturally instilled urge to apologize was in me.
It was dusk one evening in the late ’90s and I was filling up my car at a gas station on the east side in Austin, Texas. This was before the hipsters took over, back when the area still had its unsavory reputation. As I headed into the store to pay, I noticed about six men in their 20s huddled outside the end of the store whispering among themselves. Something about them didn’t feel right to me and I decided to keep an eye on them when I exited.
When I came back out and headed toward my car, one of the men broke away from the group and began walking toward me, moving way too fast. He got about eight feet from me and that trusty little voice inside spoke up again: “If he gets any closer, you’re going to be in big trouble.” By this time, training had honed my instincts, including the instinct that was now telling me to keep as much distance as possible between myself and this fast moving stranger. I looked him straight in the eyes, pointed at him and like I was cursing him to the depths of hell, I bellowed from the blackest part of my soul, “BACK THE F-CK OFF.” Stunned, he stopped in his tracks and stared at me, unsure what to do. I continued to hold his gaze with my own hard eyes, breathless but furious, frightened but determined to hide it. Suddenly, just as quickly as he had charged at me, he spun on the heels of his cowboy boots and scurried back to his friends.
When I got home and told my boyfriend what had happened, I curled up in his lap and cried as my pent up fear finally found expression. Then the strangest thing happened: Those apologist tendencies crept back in. I began to second-guess myself. “Maybe he didn’t have any ill intent.” “Maybe he was just going to ask for directions.” “Maybe…”
My boyfriend didn’t buy any of those “reasons”, so why should I? That guy creeped me out and he had no business rushing me like that. That’s when the light bulb went off for me: even if I had misjudged him, I would have to be OK with that. I couldn’t afford to be apologetic in a moment when my inner alarms were blaring. If I had given him the benefit of the doubt, despite the red flags, it could have ended in disaster.
Prior to this, I had been teaching self-defense classes, but this incident made me realize the importance of preempting a physical confrontation. I began incorporating voice work into my instruction; this included having students yell “no” or “stop” or, my personal favorite, a few curse words, while they worked to create space or punched and kicked pads and attackers in class.
I began to observe that, even more than punching or kicking, women were often even more intimidated by their own powerful voice. Instead they were using their voices to make themselves small and apologize. First attempts at using their voice as a weapon resulted in embarrassment, giggles and apologies. 100% of the time. No exceptions. Many made progress, but it was a deeply ingrained tendency I noticed over and over again. All these years later, I still see myself in new students who apologize for no good reason. I am grateful for my first instructor who pointed it out to me. It changed my life in so many ways and may have even saved it. So what do I tell the newbies?
About Beverly Baker:
Beverly’s mother always wanted her to take ballet. Instead, Beverly fell in love with the fluid and powerful movements from those super-corny martial arts movies her older brothers used to watch. She aspired to move that beautifully (not including the mismatch of mouths and words caused by English dubbing). Beverly is a 2nd dan black belt in ChaYon Ryu and has trained in a range of traditional and modern styles including jujitsu, boxing, aikido and judo. Most recently she celebrated her six- month recovery from a life-saving hysterectomy by passing her Orange belt test in Krav Maga. She currently lives in Los Angeles, holds an MBA focusing in digital media management and spends her free time road tripping with her boyfriend, Brian.