Friday, March 7, 2014

Girl World Martial Arts - Week 7

Sidekick to break a board
"Thot" is derogatory slang for a ho, slut, or whore. Demonstrating how they have overcome that word and those who say it, the Girl World girls painted it and other words like it on white pine boards and planned to snap them all with kicks and karate chops. Even if you know nothing about martial arts, you have probably heard of breaking boards and can envision the feeling of power that comes from cracking through a thick piece of wood with your bare hand/foot. Although technical difficulties with the board forced me to do the kicking and snapping, in the end, the words and their implications still fell broken to the ground in a symbolic Girl World victory.

Week 7 was the last week of martial activities for Girl World. And as with every other week, it brought a mix of unexpected delights and challenges, some of which threatened to outright ruin the entire class. Thankfully, our session ended with an awesome board break, a very excited group of youth, and an overall great atmosphere. Here are some general reflections on the class. Specifically, I want to talk about the planning that goes into youth development work and the bigger issues of female empowerment that underlay our session.

It's one of the first things you learn both in school and on the job, but you still need to experience it dozens of times to believe it. When planning youth programs, expect all of your plans to fall apart. If you are lucky, you can hastily cobble something together from the pieces. If you are unlucky, you just have to sweep them out of sight and start from scratch. To some extent, this was present in every Girl World class, but Week 7 offered the most compelling example of careful plans that rapidly came undone.

Here was the plan for Week 7: Girls would paint a stereotype on a piece of wood, let the paint dry while practicing board breaking techniques, and then they would break them. We planned this weeks in advance, bought the boards and the paint, and were setup and ready to go almost an hour before the girls even arrived at the building. Because we knew that the class depended on materials as much as curriculum, program staff followed strict specifications for the boards (the right length, height, and thickness) and the paint (quick-drying, not too messy).

Girl World starts at 4:00 PM. At around 3:45 PM, the program leader came up to me to show me the boards that she had bought, having followed all of my guidelines for which pieces to buy. It looked great at first glance, at least until I noticed something that I had completely forgotten to mention. The wood was up to muster in every respect except for one, and that last quality was probably the most important one to get right.

Breaking boards!
Used to demonstrate your strength and martial technique!

Here's the thing: Board breaking is mostly an illusion of strength and power. That's not to say that it doesn't take strong technique to break boards, and a stack of even the shoddiest pieces of wood still represents a formidable target for even a strong practitioner. But board breaking has a few tricks that make it work. You hold the board on the edges so it can bend in. You hit dead center. You avoid boards with knots in the wood, and you use softer woods like white pine instead of sturdy oak or elm.

Most importantly, and this is what we messed up, you hit PARALLEL to the grain of the wood. For those who don't go around breaking boards or building stuff on a daily basis, a wood's grain is the lining on the surface. If you hit parallel to the grain, it splits along the little fissures. That's how everyone from 6 year-olds to 60 year-olds break boards. But if you hit perpendicular to the grain, the only thing you tend to split is your fist; that's the grain used in construction, not in martial arts. It turns out that construction boards are meant to withstand forces a lot stronger than a 24 year-old martial artists' sidekick (or mallet swing).

Building boards.
Used for building shit. Like, houses.
At 3:50 PM, we realized that we had a stack of boards with the grain running the wrong way. We couldn't just rotate the boards because they were thin planks, and the grain was running lengthwise from top to bottom, not widthwise from side to side like it should have. I went outside to see if the board was breakable. After kicking it, stomping it, jumping on it, and smashing it with a mallet, it became clear that the only thing that was about to break was my foot.

There was no way that the girls were going to split any of their boards without either a chainsaw or a sudden Hulk transformation. That was a serious problem, given that we had set up 15 stations with paints and boards, and that they were already walking through the door at the end of my failed tests. This forced program staff to immediately rethink the entire session, both so it would still convey our underlying message, and so it wouldn't be a disappointment for the girls.

Thankfully, I happened to have some boards in the trunk of my car (add that to the list of odd things you find in martial artist's car), only one of which was usable for a break. So the girls painted one word on that board and I ended up performing the break; the board was too big for them to get without previous experience, and we didn't want anyone to hurt themselves.

There are a few morals of this story. The first, returning to my opening sentence, is that youthwork is as much about improvisation as it is about careful planning. Something always goes wrong in every session, and your success as a youth worker depends on your ability to rebound and recover from those situations. That can be very difficult when the failure was in your own carefully executed plans. Indeed, it almost feels like a personal failure, not a program one. In this case, we had planned the session for weeks and built up to it amongst ourselves and the girls, so we were quite reluctant to admit the failure.

The second moral touches on another point I have discussed in the past: Don't take yourself or your work too seriously. That's as true for martial artists as it is for youth workers. When I couldn't break the board, my initial instinct was to drill down on my technique and figure out why my sidekick was so weak that it couldn't beat an inanimate splinter from a dead tree. Instead of despairing or self-criticizing, I realized it was much better to laugh about it; as said before, it turns out that it's hard to break wood designed to hold up an entire house. The same goes for the session design itself. Instead of making it about a failed idea, we turned it into a demonstration of an experienced martial artist as a way to show the girls "you can do this too with training!". In hindsight, I am a bit disappointed in the underlying implications of my breaking the board instead of them. It felt a bit misogynistic, even if by accident and not design, and I vastly preferred our initial plan to the revision. But the girls still loved the class and had a great time, so I try and avoid becoming too academic or analytical about it.

One of the aims of winter Girl World was to give a positive and encouraging introduction to exercise. As I mentioned in one of my first posts on the program, many Girl World girls were tired of being automatically assigned to traditionally feminine exercise options. Some wanted to play football. Others wanted to wrestle. Others still just wanted to be able to get stronger without a friend or family member telling them that lifting makes your arms and legs look gross. To finish the winter semester, girls and staff wanted an empowering activity that would serve as a culmination of all their talks and training. From a martial perspective, there's nothing better than board breaking to fill that goal, even if they didn't get to break the board themselves (more on that later).

When thinking about Girl World, it is important to think about the issues at its foundation. Engaging in physical activity, martial or otherwise, is inherently a process of overcoming barriers. This includes mental barriers ("This exercise is too hard"), physical barriers (your heart rate hits 150 when you walk up stairs, let alone go for a jog), and logistical barriers (gyms are expensive and schedules are busy). For young women, however, there is an added obstacle that they must negotiate: popular perceptions. We have either heard them or said them, perhaps jokingly, and everyone is familiar with them from an early age: "Girls don't sweat". "Too much muscle looks ugly". "Contact sports are for boys". "Women are weak". Although it is possible to overcome these hurdles, they are a challenge that every prospective female athlete or casual exerciser will consider. And the younger you are the more powerful these stereotypes feel, even if they are no truer of a Girl World teenager than an Olympic competitor.

Our initial form of the board breaking activity was clearly a protest against these barriers. The girls would not only break boards themselves, a clear personal statement of strength, but would also break the harmful words painted on them. Moreover, they could take the shards home as a trophy to remind them of their success.

The girls still enjoyed the revised form of the exercises in which I broke the board myself, but it wasn't as satisfying for me. I won't speak for other program staff. The problem was that I, an experienced martial artist and male, was breaking the board they had painted. The girls were just watching. It was much more non participatory than our first activity idea, although it was clear that the girls were quite excited and anything but disengaged. Even so, the symbolism wasn't as meaningful with me as the breaker, even if we didn't really have another option.

This brings it back to the underlying purpose of the winter Girl World program, which was, in essence, female empowerment through exercise and physical activity. The board break may not have been the most exemplary instance of this objective, but as a culminating activity to the semester, it still drove home our point. After all, even though they didn't break the board, they had already kicked, punched, and wrestled for 5 weeks, and the growth they went through in even that small amount of time was clear to anyone who watched them.

In the end, I would not say that Girl World "succeeded" at defeating gender stereotypes and overcoming harmful perceptions, but the program certainly empowered the girls to fight against those in the future. And with any luck, this will not be the last time that we see boards broken in Girl World.

The paint wasn't quick-drying after all

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