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Mayfield students channel their inner superheroes in new Self Defense course

“Seven, eight, nine, ten” THWAP.  “Seven, eight, nine, ten” THWAP. These are the sounds of Mayfield’s students warming up for this morning’s Self Defense course, the first for-credit course of its kind at Mayfield. The students are planted on their backs, laying on thick blue mats in the gym, working on their “hip escapes,” forcing their hips backwards on a powerful scoot, and the student leading the warm-up counts out the seconds inside the position, and everyone slaps the thick mats with a thunderous THWAP at the end. Following the hip escapes, students will go on to practice more active self defense moves, from the “closed guard” to the “guillotine choke hold”—to name a few. And then, under the careful guidance of teacher Lydia Arguelles, the students will move into today’s “Stress Event Obstacle Course.” It’s a high-intensity workout, which involves sprinting across the gym, scaling the stairs in the bleachers, sparring with human partners and humanoid plush “grappling buddies” alike. The girls exchanges laughter between exercises, and slow down in moments of reflection and analysis after circuits, but while they are throwing themselves into “tripod take-downs,” “elbow strikes” and “standing grip breaks,” sometimes they look less like high schoolers and more like characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Anqing “Coco” Zhou ’25 is leading the warm-up today. After she has led for three weeks in a row, her classmate Maya Cerrillo ‘23 will take over for three weeks as well. This is all deeply intentional. Ms. Arguelles—who first started at Mayfield 14 years ago as an Athletic Trainer—teaches several courses on campus including Anatomy and Physiology inside the Science department. But she has taught many Advanced Fitness courses as well, and in general, she likes to change up her routines and warm-ups for every class. “Not for self defense though,” she explains. She wants the moves to be like ‘second nature” to the girls and “in their muscle memory.” Hence the rotating warm ups. She wants each student to get so comfortable in the moves that they can teach others, and “find their voices.”

This is not the first time Self Defense has been taught at Mayfield. Seniors have always had some amount of training during Transition Week, Formation of Self courses have dedicated individual classes to the topic as well—but both of these courses dealt more with “situational awareness” as Ms. Arguelles describes it. In creating this new course, she wanted to teach to the next possible moment if awareness wasn’t sufficient—when a situation escalated to the point when someone no longer felt safe.

Broaching the very topic of Self Defense can be a tricky one—because it deals with vulnerability, our own, and that of our loved ones—and that can easily stir up senses of unease or even outright helplessness. The mother of a 6-year-old daughter, Ms. Arguelles, understands this sense of discomfort all too well. In fact, the reason she became personally invested in self defense training was because of her daughter, Eleadora. When El was 3, Ms. Arguelles, decided to enroll her in a martial art to give her some basic self defense skills. Her husband—who once worked as a force instructor with the LA Sheriff’s Department, specializing in non-deadly force—told her the “most successful self defense, especially between a larger person and a smaller person was…Brazilian jiu jitsu.” They signed their daughter up for classes, but El found it difficult and was thinking about quitting early on, saying it was “so hard.” And  Ms. Arguelles was ready to let El stop as well, but as a last ditch effort, she decided to learn alongside her daughter for a while. Ms. Arguelles agreed with El. It was hard. For months, it was really, really hard. But the whole family started to practice together, and then something shifted subtly. They all started to enjoy it, feeling physically stronger, and psychologically stronger too. At some point, Ms. Arguelles felt she could “walk down the street and have a playbook in my head of exactly what to do…if someone grabbed me, if someone came up behind me.” She had never experienced that sense ever before, and it stuck with her, saying, “I feel invincible.”

It’s a feeling she wanted to share with other women, especially young women, on the verge of becoming more independent and far away from their regular support network. She proposed to the Mayfield administration to offer a full semester of Self Defense inside the Fitness and Wellness program. And although there are several ways to approach Self Defense, she was eager to share her training in Brazilian jiu jitsu specifically. The first students who signed up soon shared her enthusiasm.

“Before joining the self-defense class, I never had any experience in martial arts or athletics,”  says “Coco” Zhou. But she “decided to sign up for this course because I want to learn more about the strategies I can use to protect myself when there is an emergency,” saying she “really enjoyed learning about the different strategies” Ms. Arguelles has been providing her.

Maya Cerrillo ‘23 didn’t think much about the class until she was actually in the thick of it, nor did she predict what she might personally gain from the lessons. “I signed up for self defense mainly because I needed to get credit,’ she admits. ”But after taking it for a couple weeks it's been a really great and fun experience. It's especially helpful knowing that I know some basic self-defense techniques being a senior who'll be going off to college next year.”

It is a small class, but Ms. Arguelles likes it this way for the inaugural run—almost like private lessons. The students in this class happen to be slim, of medium height, and not physically imposing in the slightest. But Ms. Arguelles says that even if an opponent is “80 pounds heavier than you, 100 pounds heavier than you” Brazilian jiu jitsu teaches students to use their opponent’s apparent strengths and weaknesses against them. Ms. Arguelles describes this as “learning to play chess with human beings.” Every student has her own “grappling dummy” (think of a crash dummy but filled with firm upholstery stuffing). These dummies are the size and shape of a grown person, soft but heavy enough to practice, containing a conspicuous red bullseye where a face would have been. And although these students are physically slight, they have been learning how to use that to their advantage. Observing the pain inflicted on that dummy during this class—the elbows and kneecap jabs, the forceful arm contortions—it is clear these props are worth their weight in gold.

While the students play-act physical escapes from dangerous situations, Ms. Arguelles counteracts what could be an anxiety-producing environment with an energetic soundtrack of adrenaline-producing anthems to keep them motivated. In a particularly exhausting moment during the high-adrenaline physical circuits, Macklemore’s “Chant” comes on and the female vocalist “Tones and I” (Toni Watson) croons, “You don’t have to cry for me, I am a fighter. Fighter!” The students get their second wind as the vocalist sings, “You can’t take my voice from me, I will rise up. Rise up!”

“Self-defense takes a lot of coordination…like learning a routine,’ explains Maya. “Each move has steps, and it takes a lot of repetition and practice to be able to do those steps efficiently and effectively. I have really enjoyed learning how to escape… and knowing that even if (someone is) bigger than you, it can still be very effective…being a young woman it's very empowering to be able to learn self-defense techniques that anyone, of any size, can do.”

And Maya does not think the lessons from this class will end here,“These self-defense techniques will stick with me for a very long time.” And if someone was deciding to take a class like this,  Maya would tell them that “this course is not only a great way to learn how to defend yourself if you ever need to, but it's also a great class that teaches you how to react under stress.”

In a quieter moment after class, Ms. Arguelles shares her motivation for the day, which partially came from Catholic luminary Father Richard Rohr, OFM. Ms. Arguelles is a subscriber to his Daily Meditation, and Rohr’s lesson today was on “Strength in Weakness.” Rohr references Paul in 2 Corinthians, exploring the paradoxical relationships between weakness and strength, specifically when Paul says, “It is when I am weak that I am strong.” This is something that resonates strongly with Ms. Arguelles. “What seems like weakness is our greatest strength,” she says. “What seems powerful is actually not.” Ms. Arguelles sees immense opportunity in ever-changing power dynamics and is always looking to cultivate the physical and mental fortitude to use these dynamics well. She sincerely hopes students will come to understand today’s lesson, in some way or another: it is in our vulnerability where we can find our greatest strength.
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.