Middle school teacher offers her pupils a lesson in survival


When the giggles and the sounds of hesitant punches landing on thick pads subsided, Patti Naper did not mince words.

"I don't mean to be mean, but if you hit like that, you're just going to irritate your attacker," she said. "You have to commit to it. Otherwise, you're just going to tick the person off. Otherwise, you're just wasting your time."

Naper is not on a college campus. She's not leading an adult self-defense class. She's a middle school English instructor who, for 14 days a semester, teaches eighth-grade girls how to defend themselves against a possible attack.

Most of the girls in her class at Mount Airy Middle School are 13 years old, just a year younger than Naper says she was when she was raped.

The girls say the lessons - which could be replicated at other Carroll County middle schools if district officials deem them successful - are important and appropriate for their age group. They brought up the case of the 11-year-old girl kidnapped and killed in Florida this month and wondered whether she might have gotten away had she known about the palm heel strike.

"You see it on the news and you never think it could happen to you, but you never know," 13-year-old Arianna Franca said.

Naper, 37, a longtime karate instructor who also teaches self-defense at a gym in Eldersburg, first considered teaching self-defense classes at Mount Airy Middle last summer as she was preparing for her first school year as an eighth-grade instructor. When a colleague said that eighth-grade girls and boys take turns in study hall while the health instructor teaches the sex-education unit to each group separately, Naper decided to propose a more productive use of the girls' idle time and offered to teach a self-defense class.

"I thought, 'What a marvelous opportunity for kids to see their teacher in a different way and learn a skill that could really be life-saving,'" Principal Virginia Savell said. "I don't think it's ever too early to place the thought in a child's mind that everyone is not good and everyone is not nice. Kids in this community are very sheltered."

Savell sent home a note to parents and has not heard a single complaint from them.

The girls have been equally receptive. When 24 of them completed evaluation forms at the end of last semester's inaugural class, their biggest criticism was that the seven-day course was too short.

Naper said she begins by telling the girls that she was attacked by some boys she knew who took advantage of her family's empty house and the polite deference she said she learned in "charm classes" at Catholic school. (She said she did not report the incident to police.)

Before teaching the girls how to throw a punch or block a blow, Naper stresses the first two guidelines in what she calls the three A's: awareness and avoidance.

"Sometimes being aware can lead to avoidance," she told the girls one recent morning. "But if these things don't work - and, hopefully, they do - but if it's not enough, you may have to do this."

In blue chalk, she wrote the third A - "ATTACK" - on her classroom blackboard.

"A lot of people think about being attacked," Naper said. "But if you get in a situation, you may have to turn the tables and attack your attacker."

She taught them how to use a purse as a makeshift weapon, swinging it in the face of an attacker to distract him and get a head start on running away. She explained how to use the edges of their hands like knives, slicing at an attacker's neck and chopping at his arm if he is trying to grab them. And she taught them to use the heels of their hands to strike an attacker's chin, using enough force that each girl can imagine her hand crushing through to his brain.

"You're going to jar his head back and snap his neck, and you'll surprise him," Naper told the girls. "If you aim for his chin and miss, you will get his nose, and that won't feel too good, either."

Using what their teacher described as a "menu of options," the girls practiced full-force blows on Naper and gym teacher Dennis Frazier, who held up thick black pads strapped to their arms. Then, in slow motion and without using any force, the girls practiced the movement of different combinations of strikes, knee kicks and blocks on each other.

"Ready? I'm a guy. Grrrr," said Arianna, whose curly pigtails bobbed and bounced as she pretended to attack her friend Kelly Frazier.

Madi Ferguson celebrated with a little dance - "Woooh! I win!" she shouted - after successfully executing a combination strike, chop and knee kick in a staged attack by classmate Katie Stuck.

Several girls dissolved into giggles after suggesting that 13-year-old Becky Abel could simply wear her platform patent-leather boots - with their chunky 3-inch heels - to ward off an attack.

Despite the occasional silliness, the girls said they knew they were learning serious skills and relished that opportunity. Laura Senior, 13, said she would take her teacher's advice to practice the newly learned strikes on a pillow or mattress at home, and Katie said she planned to share what she had learned with her three younger sisters.

Referring to the grainy surveillance video replayed this month on newscasts that showed the 11-year-old in Sarasota being confronted and pulled away by a man, the girls said they have learned tactics in Naper's class that they might use if they're ever in a similar situation.

They said they'd chop at an attacker's arm as he tried to grab them or, as Naper suggested, try to "become the cat," squirming and scratching the way a cat does when it doesn't want to be picked up.

"What you saw from the camera and videotape, she did not put up much of a struggle," Katie said. "If you think about it, if she had, she could have gotten a chance to run away.

"It's scary," the 13-year-old added. "I've been thinking about it the last couple days and what would happen if something happened to me before I knew all this self-defense. But now I'm glad that I've learned a couple steps."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad