MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
This week, with most schools on winter break, we're going to spend some time with different kinds of students and teachers. Today, we're going to go inside the karate studio of Louise Rafkin. She considers herself to be both a student and a teacher of karate. At Studio Naga in Oakland, California, about half of her students are adults and half of them are kids.
LOUIS RAFKIN: I teach kids to hit.
Unidentified Boy #1: Aiyah!
RAFKIN: There you go. There you go. There you go. There you go. Follow it up. Follow it up. Good. Nice.
I teach kids to hit even though nearly all their parents tell them hitting is wrong. I teach them to hit, kick, punch, yell, pound, stomp and elbow. Now, there's a strike they can do some damage.
Go underneath. Go underneath. Go underneath. Go underneath. Use the stick. Hit to the body. Good.
The eye gouge is a quick jab with splayed fingers and the smash is a blow to the head with an upward thrusting knee.
Unidentified Boy #2: Aiyah! Aiyah! Aiyah!
RAFKIN: On the mat, I teach kids to lock out a shoulder so it will break and throw a Y-hand blow so that thrust directly at the front of the neck, catching the Adam's apple. Some of these techniques are too dangerous to use on each other. They do them in the air. But for the basic kicks and punches, they suit up in padded gear and make go at each other.
Good. Follow it up. Switch. Everybody one more time in, let's go. Get a partner. Switch. Switch. Switch.
Unidentified Boy #3: Aiyah!
RAFKIN: Harder, so much on the knees.
Unidentified Boy #4: Aiyah!
RAFKIN: During the fighting, there's times when I'm holding my breath, even as I'm telling them to breath.
Hands up. Come on. Come on, beneath him. Drop your eyes. Drop your eyes. Drop your eyes. Drop your eyes. Drop your eyes. Good. One, two, three, no, no, kick, kick, kick -
Unidentified Boy #5: Aiyah!
Unidentified Boy #6: Aiyah!
RAFKIN: Kick, kick, kick, follow this with your hand. Kick, kick, hand - there you go.
Unidentified Group: Aiyah!
RAFKIN: There are days I wish I was teaching something more benign. But whether adults want to see it or not, childhood is an aggressive time. Kids live in the world of the playground. Pushing and pushing back is the big part of it. I know there is something important these kids get out of learning how to fight.
Some of the kids are scared. Some of them are scarily fearless. Mia is agile. Her hair is pulled back from her face in perfect cornrows, each ending in a beautiful ringlet. She's nine, but she's the size of a seven-year-old.
MIA: I'm small and I don't like to tell people what I weigh that much, like, I'm not really excited about it. But I don't mind telling some people how much I weigh. Fifty pounds.
RAFKIN: Fifty pounds. But even though she's that little, I've put her in the adult fighting class because she's so focused and so good. She sometimes spars with men who weigh 200 pounds. She'll kick their knees, climb on their backs, get them to the ground where size isn't as much of a factor. The adults don't baby her, but they don't intimidate her either. I'm careful to keep that balance.
MIA: It felt really good to know that I can be respected.
RAFKIN: She's learning how to use her hands like snakes and wrap up the guys' throats. And it's been working on them.
Today, when a bigger boy comes at her with charging fist, a flicker of concern crosses her face. I can tell it's not easy for her. There's a moment when she freezes. But she doesn't back up or let up. Her arms are in ready position and she manages to parry most of his punches. When I call time, she's damped with sweat and we catch eyes. I can tell she knows that small isn't the same as powerless.
Okay. That's right. Go, go, go. Yes. That was a good one, Jeffrey. Go on with one, fix it up. Fix it up. Fix it up. Good. Hands are up. Hands are up. Hands are up. Hands are up. One, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three. Whoa.
Jeffrey's been training over three years now. He wears thick glasses and is super smart, and, you know, is a little different from the other kids. He used to get bullied and picked on. He's told me training has changed his whole playground MO.
JEFFREY: When I'm on the playground, sometimes, somebody would try to hurt -hit me or hurt me, and parrying can really help. Usually, I block the strike and I run away and hide, pretty much, and do something else.
RAFKIN: Now, he's made a truce, he says, with the class bully. He used to call this kid his enemy and he tells me this boy has a kind of power.
JEFFREY: I remember he once tried to hit me, and I parried him and those were my favorite things, because it was the first time really it mattered.
RAFKIN: He says his training has given him some of this power. I had no idea Jeffrey had this incredibly complicated analysis of the dynamics of training. He's got enough material for a PhD thesis on playground power politics.
JEFFREY: I get a lot of my power from recess and sports. And I'm considered a very tough person.
RAFKIN: What does it feel like to have power?
JEFFREY: If you have, like, I'm not going be (unintelligible), but I don't get all that much power. I just have enough to be considered as somebody.
RAFKIN: Here at the studio, Jeffrey is somebody. He's got friends and he's seen as someone who fights hard and doesn't give up.
The martial art I teach is in Indonesian style, pukulan tjimindie tulane. It's beautiful and effective and could even be deadly. And yet above all, it emphasizes compassion. As we learn these many ways to hurt each other, we're called to respect each other deeply. Jeffrey feels this from his peers.
JEFFREY: When I'm at pukulan, I always feel very cool and I feel like I'm in a community with people who I can trust and who I know. Even if it's been a really bad day at school, I always love to go to pukulan.
RAFKIN: We have a saying, an old meditation that came from Java with our founder, it says always in history, those who loved fighting were destroyed but those who could not fight were also destroyed. I know from doing this for nearly 20 years that learning to fight usually means not having to fight. As the kids hit each other, they are learning to stand up to whatever comes at them and to be responsible for what they do to others. I teach these kids hoping they won't ever have to use these skills. But I also don't want them to fear their own aggression.
And I don't want them to be afraid.
SIEGEL: Louis Rafkin is a 4th degree black belt. She runs Studio Naga in Oakland, California. She's also a writer.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.