Saturday, December 4, 2010

Standing Up For Yourself - A Lesson In Life Every Child (and Adult) Needs To Learn

"Put on your coat, Amon. Stand right there. Watch me. I'm going to demonstrate to you what Master Coles said earlier about standing up for yourself."

He slid out of his seat across from me in the booth at Uncle Julio's. Ariel, who was seated beside me, did the same. They watched as I turned around to face the booth seats next to us, behind me. I was about to stand up to the woman seated behind me. It was going to be one of the most important lessons in life for my kids.

It was a typical Saturday in Bethesda for me and the babies. Ariel had her ballet class and Amon, his Tae Kwon Do class. What was different was that Master Coles had sat the white-belters down in a row and given them a 10-minute lecture on standing up to bullies.

The parents who were watching were equally surprised as the kids. Usually, Master Coles worked his teaching of principles and philosophy into the class as he taught the moves - the blocks, the kicks and the punches. His message was clear and simple: If someone picks on you, you need to stand up to him, especially if there is no one else around and you're on your own.

"In this world, there will be people who try to push you down to make themselves feel better," he told the kids (and an audience of enraptured parents). "They think that if they step on you, they get taller. So you have to stand up to them."

When Master Coles, who has been teaching TKD for 40 years, spoke, everyone listened. It was a good lesson, all the parents agreed in hushed whispers after the class. I, for one, was very glad the Master had decided to expound on bullying, fear and standing up for oneself. Amon is painfully shy and has often encountered kids who try to ride roughshod over him. It didn't help that he was also tiny, softspoken and very bright -- the kind of kid every bully loves to pick on. From his very first incident of bruised feelings and ego, I had stressed to him the importance of standing up to bullies.

"I cannot fight your fights for you," I always said to him. "You don't have to fight him. But you need to look him in the eye, and tell him in a loud, firm voice to back off. You need to show him that you're not afraid of him. And don't be."

"And if he doesn't back off?"

"Make sure you tell the teacher or someone in charged that this boy is trying to hurt you."

"And if he hits me?"

"Then you defend yourself. Never raise your fist first, but if someone hits you, you FIGHT back. Don't ever go down doing nothing. You FIGHT back with everything you've got."

We even practiced by role playing. I played the bully, and walked him through the steps of talking back in a loud, firm voice, staring the person down, and finally blocking the punches if the other person was to raise his fist.

"And if he has a weapon -- a knife, or a gun -- you get the hell away as fast as you can, you understand?"

He nodded. I hoped it would never come down to that. I was thrilled when Amon asked to take martial arts classes. That was after watching the Karate Kid movies, both the original 1984 Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio movie, and the remake with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan, one of my personal heroes.

It has only been a few months since Amon started TKD classes with Master Coles. But I've seen his confidence grow, slowly but surely. He is still every bit the sweet, gentle, tiny "nerd" but he is a little less soft spoken now.

"There's nothing wrong in being a nerd," Master Coles told the kids. "I was a nerd growing up." I could never imagine! But I was grateful for his confession. Amon can definitely identify. We had a great discussion about Master Coles' lecture after the class. The kids wanted to eat quesadillas, so we went to Uncle Julio's.

Little did I know that the responsibility and opportunity would fall on me so soon after to walk the talk.  

The woman behind me had come in with her husband and teenaged daughter towards the end of our meal. As she and her husband moved into the seat behind me, I literally felt myself propelled forward into my guacomole and sour cream. Obviously the seats were not cushioned for impact from movement.

I didn't say a thing. There wasn't a need to, because it was an inconvenience but not an act of offense on her part. Each time she moved, I felt the earth shake. Obviously, that meant she would feel my movements as well. Blame it on cheap, badly designed furnishing. I had no anger or frustration because it was clearly not a case of anyone going out of their way to annoy another person.

Just as we were finishing up our meal, I heard her raise her voice and yell, obviously intending for me to hear: "This woman needs to finish up and GET OUT OF HERE!"

That was an act of offense. Still, I chose not to engage. If she didn't have the manners to speak to me nicely, I didn't see the point of acknowledging her rudeness. Failing to get a reaction from me, she realized she had to address me directly.

"Excuse me, but you are bumping me and pushing me forward every time you move! Will you stop that?!"

I looked her straight in the eye.

"Excuse me but you are doing exactly the same thing to me each time you move. You bumped us when you got into your seats."

A lightbulb went on. You'd think that she would then have the courtesy to acknowledge the fact that I wasn't deliberately annoying her and back off.

"Well, yeah, I understand that."

No, I didn't think there was any understanding in her perspective.

"Well, then let's just both be more careful."

"Yes, let's...." I went back to the last bits of my meal and made sure my kids were done. I got the check. But I wasn't done. There was an important lesson to be learned. Some fights shouldn't be backed off from. This was one of them. I had to stand up.

My kids were watching. I turned to the woman. I addressed her: "Excuse me, we didn't mean to bump you."

She turned to look at me. She was expecting an apology. It was clear from my look that there was no remote chance of that. She gave me a nasty look and looked back down at her food, and away from me. Her daughter seated across was looking at me. She seemed embarrassed. I stood up.

"I also want you to know that I didn't appreciate your attitude in the way you talked to me. I could hear every single word you said about me having to get out of here. I have every right to be in here, as much as you do."

At this point, her husband turned and glanced sideways at me, with a look that seemed embarrassed, but really betrayed the fact that he didn't agree that I did have as much right to be in there as him.

I got out of the seat, took my kids' hands and delivered the final salvo: "So I hope you'll remember that the next time, before you tell anyone to get out of anywhere."

I walked towards the exit, all the time with my eyes still on them.

"Did you see what I did, Amon?"

"Yes, you stood up to her."

"Just like what Master Coles said to do. Did I raise my voice or my fist?"


"Yes, there wasn't a need to. But she yelled at us to get out of there. Did you hear that?"

"Yes. They looked embarrassed."

"Good. Because she had no right to tell us to get out. Firstly, she doesn't own the restaurant. We're paying for lunch, just as she is. Also, we didn't do anything wrong to be told to get out."

If anyone is thinking that I had read too much into the woman's antagonism, I will say this to your face: Bulls**t.

Her initial reaction had completely betrayed her underlying motivations. She wasn't simply annoyed by the bumping caused by my movements. If that had been purely the case, the outburst would be along the lines of: "Why does this person keep bumping the chair?!" Instead, it was that I need to get out of there. She was annoyed by the fact that I was even there at all.

Was it racially motivated? Of course! Sure, I can't prove it with empirical evidence. But let's not mince words here. Would she have been as blatantly rude if I wasn't yellow? Of course not. For whatever misguided reason, she had assumed herself to be superior to me, and hence she had the right to tell me to get out. Of course it didn't occur to her that if my movements inconvenienced her, then her movements would do the same for me. Because in her worldview, my existence didn't even figure.

So yes, this is fight that needs to be fought. This is one instance when I have to and will not back off from standing up for myself. And this is one lesson I want my kids to learn.

"Do not ever, ever let anyone tell you to get out of anywhere, Amon. You have every right to be."

The conversation had continued as we made our way into Barnes and Nobles. We were standing right in front of a stack of books on Hanukkah.

"Mom, my classmate Savier brought a menorah to class and we lit a candle together. What happened to the Jewish people?"

"The same thing that happened to us back in the restaurant. Hitler told the Jews to get very bad ways. He tortured them, put them in prison camps and killed them."

"That is so wrong."

'Yes, it is."

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