Fencing a surprise hit at West Intergenerational
Matt Scott described himself as “very frustrated” in high school. All it took to set him straight, the college student recalled recently, was learning how to swordfight at
the West Intergenerational Center.
“I would get in trouble,” he said recently. “But coming here allowed me to take out my anger. It turned my life around.”
His is not an unusual story among the 175 young people who have taken the fencing class at West over the past four years.
Unexpectedly, the twice-weekly night class has proven to be one of the most popular the West Center has ever offered, according to center executive director, E.D. Rucker.
Not all students are there to take out frustrations. “It's fun,” said Jenee Butler, a senior at Wasson High who's been taking the classes for three years. “Honestly, it's the only thing my mom has put money in that I didn't give up on.”
Elaine Schoen, the class originator, teaches now at Air Academy High, but she was a West Middle School teacher four years ago when the idea first came to her. A former college fencer, she would wear a fencing shirt to school, which would stimulate conversation with students about the sport. “I had a lot of kids tell me they would love to do it, but they couldn't afford it,” she said.
So in early 2001, Schoen applied for a grant that would cover equipment costs, thus allowing her to teach the course at minimal cost to students.
The grant eventually was approved, and the class started in fall 2002.
By that time she had transferred to Wasson High, but Schoen said she wanted to keep the class at West - where she had taught for four years - no matter where she teaches in the future. “I will never leave the Westside,” she said. “I love that community. I never had so much support as I did there.”
As for the class itself, Rucker admits he was initially skeptical, and Schoen recalled being told by someone else that she'd “be lucky to have five kids.” Admittedly, she did some initial recruiting - tracking down her former West students who were by then at Coronado - but the numbers stayed high with class after class that followed. The current enrollment numbers about 50 students.
Helping her with the teaching is Brice Berkeland, also a former college fencer. Although a few of the students take a competitive track - including his daughter, Kendra, who qualified for the National Junior Olympics - both he and Schoen talk about the class for its value as outreach to young people, particularly those who are considered “at risk.”
“It helps kids take out their angst while emphasizing discipline,” he said. “Chivalry is not dead. You honor your opponent, even if you don't like him.”
Schoen said the class is about “taking personal responsibility. We're telling them they have to respect others, and then they'll be respected. We've had a lot of them tell us it's the first time anybody has respected them.”
Three types of weapons are used: the foil (point only, at the torso), epee (point only, at any part of the body), and the saber (edge and point, at the waist up).
Students in the class get to duel with an electronic scoring machine, like those in fencing tournaments, that records “hits.”
Classes are taught in 16-week blocks. The cost for each block is $18. This is considerably less expensive than other fencing classes in town. What helps keep costs down, in addition to the grant, are Schoen's and Berkeland's willingness to teach for almost no pay and the generosity of organizations such as the American Legion (for the scoring machine) and the VFW (for protective vests).
Watching a class on a recent night, the physical exertion is quite evident - fighters attacking and defending, moving back and forth. But it is not the actual hitting that takes out anger, Schoen believes. It's the mental aspect, trying to figure out what your opponent is trying to do to you while you're trying to work an attack on him/her. She recited a quote her college coach once told her: “It's chess at 100 mph.”
For more information, call the West Center at 385-7920.
Westside Pioneer article