Learn Self-Defense At No Expense!

Three free self-defense classes, taught by Gabrielle Rubin, were offered to seniors this spring. These classes helped students learn important defense skills that can aid them in college and beyond.

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Everyone has feared being the victim of an attack. Stories of violence in New York City, from stabbings and kidnappings to people being shoved onto train tracks, have only exacerbated this concern—many students find themselves anxiously second-guessing their surroundings each day. Thus, it is important to know how to defend oneself. Though it may seem intimidating, acquiring self-defense skills can be a matter of life and death, making Stuyvesant’s recent self-defense classes a valuable resource.

The idea of a self-defense class at Stuyvesant sprouted from an argumentative essay that senior Sophianne Leung wrote last year in English teacher Maura Dwyer’s AP English Language and Composition class. The essay argued for the necessity of self-defense classes considering the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes since the pandemic. “It really got me thinking about what it means to be secure, as a young woman or as an Asian American, going around the city,” Leung said. 

After reading Leung’s essay, Dwyer was inspired to bring a self-defense course to Stuyvesant. “When I read it, I was thinking: how can we turn this into something? Because it’s not just a teacher saying this is something that would be good for our students. It’s also a student saying this would be something that would be good for our student body,” Dwyer said.

Three physical education teachers joined Dwyer and Leung in creating a self-defense course: Rebeca Morel-Wernham, Jenna Freytag, and Silvana Choy. After Choy mentioned to Dwyer that she signed her daughter up for a self-defense class, the five of them took a self-defense course together, taught by Gabrielle Rubin. “In the fall, we all took a class—Sophianne, myself, and the other three gym teachers, and then one of Sophianne’s friends—with this instructor. And we approached her and said, ‘Do you think you could teach at schools, or offer teenagers this class?’ And she said, ‘absolutely,’” Dwyer said. 

Rubin is the instructor and founder of the Female Awareness self-defense course and a martial arts expert. Apart from teaching studio classes aimed at adults, Rubin has also taught at various schools and companies. Rubin’s course is intended for those 11 and older, so she has experience teaching self-defense to many different ages, including high schoolers. Her path to becoming a self-defense teacher was an unexpected one. After experiencing a situation where she needed to use self-defense, Rubin realized that she could pass on her knowledge to others and help people develop life-saving skills. “It really happened holistically. I felt there was a situation that occurred that caused me to do this impromptu class,” she said. 

 Once Rubin agreed to teach at Stuyvesant, Dwyer and Leung wrote a proposal for a grant from the Parents Association, explaining how self-defense at Stuyvesant would benefit everyone in the community. When it was approved, the idea of self-defense classes became a reality.

The three free classes were taught on April 8, April 16, and April 17. The two-hour classes took place after school in the dance gymnasium and consisted of 25 to 30 students who signed up by filling out a Google Form and a parental consent form. The smaller class sizes gave each student more individual attention. 

The class was split into two parts: in the first hour, there was a lesson on avoiding physical and dangerous encounters to prevent needing self-defense in the first place. “I realized I was teaching how to avoid that situation altogether. I realized that a lot of self-defense classes start from the moment that somebody already has their hands on you,” Rubin said. “We should be teaching people how to live safely every day, not just from the moment that someone has their hands on you.”

Then, the second hour consisted of learning different defense techniques to use in case of a dangerous situation. “First, we do strikes from head to toe, and then we get out of a multitude of different types of grabs,” Rubin said. Participants were able to apply what they had learned through hands-on practice. 

During each class, Rubin used humor and personal anecdotes to make students feel more comfortable and confident. “Ironically enough, considering that the topic is self-defense, I really come from a place of humor. I know that seems ironic when you’re talking about a topic like this, but I don’t think that scaring people gives them a lot of confidence,” Rubin said. Rubin also emphasized that anyone could encounter a dangerous situation, no matter their martial arts experience, making self-defense vital for everyone to learn. “I kind of share my own experiences as well as other experiences from my friends, that despite the fact that I might be a black belt, I am still put in situations. So, I share that so as to make it relatable as well,” she explained.

Rubin’s unique approach to teaching changed the way students saw self-defense. Rather than just focusing on martial arts, Rubin also taught students to maintain good posture, get off their phones, and look like they know where they are going to minimize the risk of an attack. “I came to understand that self-defense isn’t really about the application of the force, or being able to punch people or escape from grabs. It’s about confidence in the power that you have, knowing you can protect yourself. And it’s more than that—it’s the verbal resistance that you use before this physical confrontation starts,” Leung said. 

The self-defense classes were originally only offered to seniors. “A lot of our senior population ends up going away to college. They leave home for the first time, and they may find themselves in very unfamiliar places and unfamiliar situations,” Dwyer remarked. “We wanted them to have transferable skills so that they feel confident and safe and secure when they go to college.” 

However, the classes were eventually opened to all grades, giving all students a chance to learn self-defense skills. After all, self-defense classes are important for all students, especially since many have been put in dangerous situations before. “All of our students commute. They come from all over. They’re trying to navigate the city and sometimes at difficult and unsafe times,” Choy said. Self-defense classes could also help students bond over shared experiences. “It could also bring our students together as a community because it highlights what other students have experienced or might be concerned about traveling to and from school. We’re all in it together on how to navigate the city safely,” Choy added.

Dwyer and Leung hoped that the self-defense classes would help empower students who might not know how to defend themselves. The classes did not require any prior experience, and emphasis was put on how anyone can learn to be confident with self-defense. “The great thing about this class is that you don’t need to be an athlete. You don’t need to have any prior training. You actually already have everything you need to defend yourself, and that’s something that the instructor touches upon. And I think a lot of people, myself included, might not perceive themselves that way as already having the capability to defend themselves,” Dwyer stated. 

Overall, those who took the class found it to be a great experience, thanks to its format and Rubin’s expertise. “[Rubin] was really, really good, and she walked each of us through what to do and went up to each of us and made us defend ourselves,” senior Samaria Noel remarked. Like most participants, Noel had never before taken a self-defense class, making the class even more helpful and informative. “It was a great opportunity to learn things that I didn’t know before, especially because I’ve never taken a class like that—I think a lot of people haven’t,” Noel said. “The only thing I’m scared of is forgetting it on this spot, so I’m going to keep practicing.”

Morel, Freytag, and Choy, who supervised each of the classes, shared a similar sentiment. Morel recalled watching students become confident while also having fun learning how to defend themselves. “It was awesome. It was really inspiring to see the students being empowered to be able to defend themselves and know how to be aware of their surroundings, and to be able to let loose,” she said. “It made me really happy to see the students engaged.”

Looking forward, Dwyer and Leung hope that self-defense classes continue to be offered to all students at Stuyvesant. “What Mrs. Dwyer and I were really thinking about was how we could make self-defense accessible to everyone. We’re hoping that with these classes, Facebook interaction, and word of mouth, there will be greater support for integrating this into the curriculum next year,” Leung said.

The way that self-defense classes may be offered at Stuyvesant in the future is still undetermined. One option is having annual self-defense classes taught by a self-defense expert such as Rubin. “We discussed offering it again, as [an] afterschool activity, in the spring semester and catering more towards the seniors, but also being able to open it for all students,” said Morel. 

However, Dwyer and Leung would prefer the addition of a self-defense unit in regular physical education classes. For this, physical education teachers would need to receive self-defense training before being able to teach students. “We are definitely interested in continuing to offer self-defense training in the future. We had a number of PE teachers observe and participate in the class, and we are discussing ways to incorporate self-defense into our PE curriculum. Teachers must have training and expertise in any subject before entertaining the idea of teaching the course to students,” Assistant Principal of Physical Education Brian Moran said in an email interview. “We can provide training and professional development for teachers to develop the skills required for teaching this subject. It would be a disservice to students and the teacher to rush into something like this without doing our due diligence.” 

Encountering dangerous situations is inevitable, especially in such a large and unpredictable city like New York. “It’s just a part of New York City life and commuting, that you’re going to encounter situations that are uncomfortable,” Dwyer said. However, that does not mean that you are defenseless. Self-defense classes are important for people of all backgrounds, helping improve confidence and safety. Learning self-defense can help to protect and empower students, in both high school and wherever our paths may take us.