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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > August, 2005 - Give Me Shelter
by Ross Robertson

Give Me Shelter by Ross Robertson

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Oh, a storm is threat'ning
My very life today
If I don't get some shelter
Oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away
~ "Gimme Shelter" Rolling Stones, Jagger/Richards

This past Tuesday I had the pleasure of teaching a small group of children an introduction to aikido. I entered the gymnasium to find them already at play, shooting hoops, playing kickball, and riding tricycles. They seemed generally congenial. They appeared happy, and to all appearances, perfectly normal.

Normal is probably what these kids need most in their lives right now. Their age range was from around six years old to early teens. Their ethnicity was mixed. The common element among them is their history and current circumstances. These kids are all under the care of the Austin Children's Shelter, the place designed to be a safe haven for children once they have been removed from abusive or neglectful homes. Their time at the Shelter is limited. Usually they may only stay no more than three months while the Courts decide their future. Most will be placed into foster care; some may be returned to their original home or that of a relative. All have come under the Child Protective Services system.

One of my own students is Director for the Shelter. She thought it could be helpful to introduce aikido to these kids, and that showing them some positive ways to respond to violence or aggression might provide them with valuable tools for the future. She gave me a sample "Trauma History" to give me an idea of the kind of backgrounds these kids have experienced, the names carefully blacked out with a heavy marker. The folded up piece of paper included phrases like "born positive for cocaine," "allegations of physical abuse, neglect, neglectful supervision, medical neglect, sexual abuse, parental drug use, and domestic violence." There was more: "...children had sustained bruises on their backs, heads, and faces as a result of being hit," "...pushed down the steps." Also "allegations that... [blank] sell the family's food stamps for drugs" and "getting drugs and money in exchange for [blank] having sex with men."

War, children, it's just a shot away
It's just a shot away
Rape, murder!
It's just a shot away

I'm generally very confident in my skills, and I have enough background that I can improvise a good class with just about any audience. I usually do not find it difficult to go in and establish rapport with a new group. Even so, there's always a bit of nervousness with any new encounter, and naturally I couldn't know what to expect with these kids. Would they shrink away at even the slightest suggestion of simulated aggression? Would they react with hostility and rage? Or would they sit in stony silence, unbelieving that I could relate to them in any way, or offer them anything of value? I placed my trust in the Director who invited me there, knowing she would not willingly expose me to embarrassment. Or, more essentially, anything that might be traumatic for the kids. I was also assured that there would be staff on hand to assist and guide me if I happened to venture into dubious territory.

As it happened, my fears were unfounded. The kids were generally receptive, if a bit restless. No matter, I had not gone there to impose any discipline of any sort. I just wanted to share a few basic things with anyone who might be interested. The staff was a great help. One man in particular, large and very fit, was perfect for me to be able to demonstrate aikido with a more powerful force. The gentleman played the part perfectly, and himself seemed intrigued with the presentation. The Director's son, also a student of mine, volunteered to come and help out, and I was very grateful to have him there.

I showed basic escapes and evasions. We worked on hand escapes from various grabs for a good while. I let them do it with partners, asking the big kids to help the little kids. Happily they all worked well together, albeit with the inevitable Hollywood kicks and posturing thrown in. I felt encouraged to let them practice a bit more freely, engaging in what Bill Sosa Sensei used to call "bar room brawl" practice, where everyone is free to attack anyone. We progressed to the other evasions, going under one or two arms. I emphasized my basic lesson of "walk through doors, don't walk through walls." I showed how ducking under an arm is like walking through a door, and showed them the difference between the front door and the back door.

Inevitably with this practice, recognizable forms of aikido begin to emerge, though I wasn't there to teach them that. I could see the kids discovering for themselves that this leads to ikkyo, that to shihonage, or some other defense. I wasn't interested in teaching them the names or even the forms -- only the basic principles that will lead them toward aikido. Again, another bar room brawl, to liven up things a bit.

Interest waned with a few of them, and I let them drift off. It was essential to let these kids choose for themselves. With the majority that remained, I was able to show some gentle take-downs, and how to protect the attacker from a hard fall.

We were training on concrete the whole time. The few mats available were tiny, and we mainly used them as a place for the kids to sit while I demonstrated.

All in all, things went very well. Had I not been given any background, I would have never suspected that these were anything but normal kids with normal homes (if there is such a thing). The children seemed to have a good time, and the staff has given me very encouraging feedback. There may be an opportunity to do this in an ongoing capacity.

I tell you love, sister,
it's just a kiss away
It's just a kiss away
It's just a kiss away

Still, I find it hard not to worry. If it's true that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, then I may have given some of these kids the key to a door they may not be ready to walk through. There is always the chance that some may be returned to homes where they are not safely cared for, and where any act of the slightest defiance, however gently enacted, could have violent repercussions.

As I mentioned earlier, the Shelter has only a very limited window of time in which to make some kind of difference in these fragile lives. They face staggering odds and constant budgetary concerns. They exist as a small part of a complex system. In some cases, the system fails, and all the courts and all the CPS and all of us cannot put the children back together again. Some kids will be hurt again, beaten or sexually abused by their own caregivers. Many will carry forward inner scars that will impact them far more deeply than the outer, more obvious signs of abuse.

The Shelter exists as a potential turning point. The people who work there know they cannot affect things beyond their control, and yet they are committed to doing what they can. They embody the assertions of Robert Fripp, who stated that "Qualitative action is not bound by number" and "Any small unit committed to qualitative action can affect radical change on a scale outside its quantitative measure."

So we must act within what Rod Kobayashi Sensei called our "range of effectiveness." We do what we can within the area of our capacity, and we do not waste our energy where we cannot reach.

Meeting with these kids was a small challenge for me, and a minor diversion for them. I don't delude myself about being able to rescue them from their past. I know my short time with them won't save them from their future.

Even so, we plant seeds, understanding that, given a chance, with even a moderately nurturing environment, something strong, healthy and wonderful can grow.

The web site for the Austin Children's Shelter is here:


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