Last night I had a dream. I was enrolled in a class that taught self-defense. The instructor was a thin, over-eager man. He split the class in half and gave half of the students bats. To the other half, he said, “They’re going to come at you with bats. So you need to practice how to defend yourself.” I kept waiting for some advice, some insight into how you fend off a person with a bat. But that was all he said.
And they came at us with bats. Swinging for the head, the shoulders. I raised my arms over my head to protect myself, and they swung their bats until my arms were bruised and shattered in a pulpy mess of pain. The instructor called out, “Swing harder! You need to learn how to defend yourselves against an enemy that will show no mercy. This is a serious threat, and you need to take it seriously.” And it dawned on me that those of us without the bats were not the only ones being taught. The students with bats saw themselves as warriors, defenders learning to wield their weapons for the right cause, in the name of justice. Their eyes burned with pride and power. Other students like myself, beaten and pained, began to understand. In their eyes there was the same light, the eager hunger for their chance with the bat.
“I’m not going to do this anymore,” I said, and stepped away. A student with a bat came at me, weapon raised above his head. I caught his wrist and quickly stepped aside, turning as though dancing, balanced on the fulcrum of my center. His own momentum carried him past me until he was falling, wrist twisted up behind him, his bat wrenched from his grasp and dropped to the grass. The instructor was outraged. The students, batters and beaten alike, screamed at me in protest. “How dare you hurt him! We’re on the same side! How will we learn to defend ourselves if you disrupt class like this and take our bats away?!”
I bristled with anger at the instructor. “I thought this class would teach us to defend ourselves — but you cannot teach people self-defense by requiring them to be helpless victims! You give them only one example of power — brutality and force — and then you beat them down until they are frightened and in pain, willing to follow the only example of power they have. All you are teaching them is how to be bullies.”
The instructor sneered at me. “What do you know? Look at you, beaten and weak, lashing out at the people who are trying to help you!” And he gave everyone a bat. And they were mighty. And they were fast. But I was faster, and I fled down the grassy hill towards the creek that used to run behind my old grade school, the creek that ran past the ice rink where I learned to skate when I was seven, where we spent our whole first lesson learning how to slip across the ice like superheroes flying on our stomachs because the first thing you need to know when you’re learning how to dance on ice is how to fall without breaking any bones, so that you are able to get up again. And the hill was steep, and the grass was wet, and there were half-hidden stones and holes that could snap an ankle in a second. But I was faster then the people with the bats. Because I’d learned something they couldn’t bring themselves to learn, because they were too afraid. I’d learned that if you wanted to know how to dance, you had to first learn how to fall.