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Pete Seeger has died at age 94. His January 27th 2014 passing leaves a hole in the hearts of many but his legacy asks us to memorialize him by participating in our own communities and standing up for our common good with bravery, joy and music.
I took off my shoes and lined up with a group of ten Portland teens and faced instructors Kimonee and Kianna. “This is a black-belt school,” we chanted in unison. Kianna and Kimonee, two black-belt trained instructors, approached teaching teens self-defense at the library with both a seriousness and a passion for their discipline. The focus was not only on self-defense but also on self-respect. The program attracted a range of library users. Some of the teens were familiar faces to me and others I had never seen before. The first session started out as all boys, but by session four, a third of the participants were female.
Each class started with a series of exercises that involved pushups, sit-ups and jumping jacks. Once our hearts were thumping, we were ready to learn new techniques. Kianna and Kimonee demonstrated their skills against each other, demonstrating what to do when faced with an assailant. Fighting was a last resort and the focus was on how to thwart a predator and to learn confidence in leaving safely from a dangerous situation. It got even more interesting when they brought in props such as (fake) knives and guns. Some teens laughed and others were more serious in mastering the skills to defend themselves as they practiced amongst each other and played the roles of mugger and victim.
Since starting work as the Teen Librarian for the Portland Public Library, I had wanted to do a program that involved something physical. I had two reasons for this. One is that beyond the power of books, the library has enormous potential as a social community place for teenagers. Many of our teen patrons have a common interest in soccer. They communicate and enjoy the company of their friends while playing FIFA Soccer on the library’s XBOX. I wanted to get them away from the TV for a moment so that they could learn something new. I also wanted to offer an activity that was social, but also civil. Such a program would teach ideas of self-respect and empowerment in a way that was fun and not too didactic.
The second reason is that I believe that the library is a great place for self-education. It is a place for teens to try new things, whether it is reading a work of fiction or being introduced to something that might not be offered to them in school. Just as I do not expect someone who checks out a novel to become an author, I do not have the expectation that someone who attends a library program will become an expert in whatever subject the class or activity is based around. Either way, it is an introduction and a jumping off point to get teens excited. The library’s strength is that it can foster a love for self-education, something that should continue for lifelong learners inside or outside of a classroom.
Karate seemed ideal for our library space. No special equipment was needed and teens did not need to come with any prior knowledge. On the other hand, the idea of karate was not a completely foreign one to them, even if they had never tried it. Most teens are familiar with karate whether it is through watching movies, reading manga or learning about it through books. I was lucky enough to find two great instructors willing to help out. Initially I contacted Kianna, a woman in her early twenties, and she suggested that she co-teach the program with her teenage sister Kimonee. Great! The teens responded well to the youthful energy these two radiated. I believe that some teens left the program learning something new. And for those who didn’t, they still had fun and are more likely to visit the library again. Either way, this program was a success and definitely something I’d be happy to offer again.
An opportunity for action planning and a reception will follow the facilitated event. RSVPs encouraged but not required and this event is fully free and open to the public. The conversation will be enriched by broad participation — please come and bring a friend –all are truly welcome!