Up Against My Limits
This week, I was part of a group of teachers who taught an entire school of 9th graders (about 450 students!) self-defense. First you should know that I fear teens more than almost any other demographic. So this was definitely an edge for me. But I was asked to be part of this pilot program teaching San Jose Unified School District and I couldn’t turn it down.
Our curriculum is one I’m incredibly inspired by. It’s not just testosterone-fueled groin strikes (though we have those). It’s not just how to avoid a stranger in a dark alley (though we teach tools for that as well). At it’s core, it’s a course in figuring out what your boundaries are and learning how to communicate them to others.
Boundaries are something I think about, like, a LOT. I studied philosophy in college and remember a whole course on ‘limits’. This was a very intellectual exercise in boundaries, where something ends or becomes something else. What are the particular qualities of borders? But I didn’t really start to grasp boundaries until I took my first class with IMPACT Bay Area in 2016. It’s great to be able to wax philosophical about permeable membranes but it didn’t translate to being more clear with my partner about ways I didn’t want to be touched or conversations I needed to have with my friends in order to feel emotionally safe in our relationship.
I’ve talked to a lot of friends about this lately, and it is pretty baffling how inexperienced most of us are at talking about our boundaries. It’s a basic human experience, we rely on boundaries every single day to navigate the world, but it’s abstract to verbalize. And this is for Bay Area adults who have done years of therapy or personal development. Trying to discuss some of this with 15 year olds was hilariously challenging.
Throughout the class, I tried to find ways to make these concepts land for them. We were on a high school campus all day for several days, so I was already in a nostalgic place of locker rooms and cheerleaders and PA systems talking about homecoming dances. I spent my 7:30am class in a cafeteria/auditorium/theater, just like the multi-purpose rooms of my formative years. I transported myself back to Marlboro High School or, later, Wheeling Park High School to try to relate to these kids and find language that would resonate with them.
Ninth grade is a really intense year. I remember being delirious with excitement to be around older kids (and away from those lame 6th graders). I remember being terrified at the idea of talking to the boys I had crushes on. I had no idea how to deal with a junior who asked me out and then became vindictive when I said no. Or a guy I really liked but who gave me mixed signals. I was suddenly at parties where there was alcohol. I was dealing with all these emotions and new experiences and didn’t know what I was supposed to do.
Never-mind that I didn’t know what I really wanted or what I really felt comfortable with. “Boundaries” was not a topic we discussed much, if at all. I didn’t think before I went out with friends what I would or wouldn’t be comfortable with. I ended up having my first kiss after drinking some cheap beer at a party with an older friend. I don’t even remember his name. I was so desperate to become mature… I didn’t realize that maturity actually comes from knowing myself, not from checking boxes off sexual experiences.
Reflecting back to 9th grade Jemma and what she didn’t know made me want to give these kids some truly helpful tools for navigating the next phase of their lives. We talked about different types of boundaries (physical, emotional, sexual, ethical). We talked about how you might know if your boundaries are crossed (how does it feel inside your body?). We talked about what you might need in terms of support or self-care if something traumatic happens so you don’t isolate yourself with it.
I teach classes with this curriculum to adults, and we definitely had to adjust how we say things to make it accessible for 15 year olds (many of them don’t know what ‘intuition’ is, for example, so we’re also introducing some new words and concepts into their vocabulary). But we recognized as a staff that our primary goal was planting some seeds in their concept of boundaries. I give major kudos to this school district for trying this out with all their students. Can you imagine how different our #MeToo conversations might be if we established the importance of respecting boundaries into our collective mentality at 15? If we gave ourselves some time to process what that means in advance, instead of allowing all this trauma to occur and asking us to reconcile with it after the fact?
I finished my classes by asking everyone to share something they learned during our 2 days together, and while their in-class behavior sometimes felt like they weren’t paying attention, almost everyone had a meaningful response. They learned they were allowed to have boundaries, they learned to use their voice, they learned to communicate when they were uncomfortable. They learned to strengthen their support network and talk to their friends about this. The fact that everyone in their class took this course means they’ll have a new shared language they can refer to. Every single 9th grader at Willow Glen High will have a basis for the word “boundaries”. I don’t know how we can measure the impact of this, but it gives me chills to think about.
Were there moments I wanted to cry and run out of the room because of disruptive students? Um, yeah. Was there a call to my own mom after one period because I was so frustrated that I wouldn’t be able to make a difference with these rugrats? MAYBE.
But ultimately, it feels like a way to plant the seed with a group who might take this idea and build strong, impactful, and beautiful lives. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to work with the absolutely kick ass women of IMPACT Bay Area and to have met every single one of those kids, even the ones who pushed my boundaries for two days. Every time I talk about boundaries, I get a little better at identifying and enforcing my own and I get a little better at this thing called life.
If you’re interested, you can learn more about IMPACT Bay Area full-force, empowerment-based, self-defense and personal safety classes here.