How Martial Arts Shaped Who I Am
I was born in Orange County in January of 1989, and I spent the first 16 years of my life in Santa Ana. For the most part, I had a good childhood. There were some dark factors looming, but I had the support of my mother, who, though she was away a lot working, always had my back. My father was completely out of the picture. The reasons at the time were very vague, but the rejection I felt from being unwanted made it easy not to care. My mother and I lived with my grandparents who took care of me most of the time. The neighborhood I grew up in was not very welcoming to me. By the time I was 5 or 6 I was cruising around my neighborhood and got my first taste of bullying. Most of my neighborhood was Hispanic, and though I was part Hispanic, I looked mostly white and didn’t speak any Spanish. There was a strong disconnection with me and most of the kids in my neighborhood, and the older ones tended to go after me. It started with the typically teasing and mean words, but eventually escalated to getting rocks thrown and me and occasionally getting into fist fights that I never started and never could finish. It also didn’t help that I had a mild speech impediment and anxiety, which added to that separation between my peers and I.
In first grade I got kicked off of a jungle gym while at school recess. It sent me flying off, getting the wind knocked out of me, and leaving me panicked and shaken. At the time my asthma was pretty severe and not being able to breathe for that half minute or so scared six year old me pretty good. I am sure the fall and experience wasn’t as bad as I remember, but I was small. My mother did two things in reaction to that kick. First, she pulled me out of school and sent me to a more diverse one in another neighborhood. Things were much better there. I still got bullied but it was much less severe and fighting was less common. The second thing my mother did was sign me up for Karate. I had been asking to go for quite a while, very much inspired by my adoration of The Power Rangers television show. I was very excited to get involved in my first sport.
I had just turned seven and started my martial arts journey. Sensei Robert Spencer was the head instructor. At the time he was 25, a second degree black belt in Kenpo-Karate, and had experience in Aikido and submission grappling. We connected early on. See, at seven, I was not a gifted athlete. Asthma kept my stamina low, I had thick lenses on my glasses and was barely functional without them, and I had little to no coordination. Nothing came easy, but I loved fighting; especially with Rob. I would always instigate sparring and play fighting with him whenever I had the chance. I would be bruised and thrown around but never wanted to quit. I had heart, and I think that made him take a liking to me as a student.
Over the next few years I inched my way through the beginning ranks and into the intermediate ones. I still used a similar belt system to mark progress with my MMA students. Rank is a good showing of success and growth and I loved testing and getting my belts. Soon the bullying was more or less manageable as I was able to assert myself with some of the neighbors; specifically the ones closer to my age. I don’t condone kids getting in fights and when asked about it, I always differ that kids listen to their parents. On the same note, I don’t think anyone should put up with abuse and we all have a right to protect ourselves. There were some scuffles that showed I could defend myself, and that negated a lot of the trouble. Also, I think some of the older bullies grew up and lost interest in me. Martial arts did give me more confidence and I at least felt like I could scrap a bit, which to me was a huge success, whether or not I would win.
When I was 11, some family struggles pulled me out of training. My grandfather had his second stroke and was left immobile. There were some other more personal things I will not get into, but what I will say is there was a lot of stress and pain that fell heavily on my mother. I missed training but was also happy to have fewer obligations amidst the chaos. Eventually things settled down and I made requests to get back into fighting.
At 12 I was entering 7th grade and again entering a new school. It was a perfect time to return to the dojo and Rob. It was hard; really hard. My conditioning was awful and my asthma seemed worse than ever. I didn’t realize the effect sitting, stressing, and only playing video games for a year would have on me. It was incredibly frustrating. I went from being one of the most promising students and a bit of a teacher’s pet to not being able to hold my balance nor my breath. I was deeply discouraged. Soon after noticing my frustration, Rob pulled me aside as reassured me that with patience and consistency, I would get my stamina and skills back. I had a lot of self-doubt, but chose to trust him.
7th grade was the worst school year of life. Everyone was mean to me. At that point, I was at peak physical awkwardness. For example, we would have to run around the school’s field for PE. It was roughly a quarter mile. Half way through, my arms would get so heavy that I would have to let them hang at my side as I ran, and kids would call me out for how ridiculous I looked. Fortunately, my speech issues were clearing up, but still lingered. I had been forcing myself to speak slowly and work through my hang-ups, but now my voice was changing, and with that came all the cracking and awkward pitches that creep up during puberty. It went on like this for what seemed like forever, but was probably 3 to 4 months. Lots of kids saw me as an easy target and bullying escalated. I would always speak up and defend myself, but nothing seemed to help. I was sad, lonely, and angry. Eventually, around that 4 month mark, someone hit me. I refused to start a fight and wouldn’t put hands on anyone unless they did so first. My worst bully, a kid that was held back a year, would follow me around with his 8th grade friends, saying terrible things to me. Finally, he decided to shove me. I shoved him back. He laughed at me, looked away from me and at his friends, and then came around and socked my in the center of my chest, knocking the wind out of me.
I recall hunching over, waiting to catch my breath. I was in the adult class at the dojo, and had now had the wind knocked out of me plenty of times. It wasn’t like that jungle gym when I was a pup. The bully and his cohorts were laughing at me as I stayed patient. As soon as my breath returned I squared up to the bully, kicked him in the stomach, and went in for a double leg takedown. He hit the pavement; I stood up and then began striking him. After a few moments and a dozen or so shots I realized he wasn’t going to try to hit me again. I proceeded to walk away and was soon stopped by a very upset teacher.
From that point on more kids would put hands on me, and each time I would scrap, and each time I would hold my own. Each time someone fought me was the last time they fought me, and eventually, everyone left me alone. Now, looking back, as an adult, I see there are many sides to this experience. At the time I saw things as black and white. There were bad kids coming after me and I had to protect myself. Now, after working with kids and teens almost 2 decades, I realize that they had their own struggles, traumas, and reasons for acting how they did. None of that makes bullying justified, but I realize how complex my peers were. I also do not think violence is the answer to all confrontations. Sometimes that escalates things to extremes that otherwise wouldn’t manifested. What I also know is that teenagers are very un-evolved humans. The tribalism and alpha stuff is a big part of the culture. Getting in all those dumb scuffs made people respect me. I was lucky how things played out in that scenario. In another, I might have gotten jumped and stabbed. What I can say, having knowledge that makes me more capable of protecting and asserting myself helped me. 8th grade was an amazing year. I joined the flag football team. Some kids that were mean to me before were cordial, while others completely ignored me. It was around this time I began helping out at the school as an assistant instructor, but we will continue that in Part 2.