In the mid-90s, while alt-rock raged across the airwaves, twenty-something Shark Girl used to visit two elderly Italian sisters who lived in the North End of Boston. They would make me lunch. We would talk about Italy and life as an immigrant in Boston. We told stories of our families and discussed the problems of the world. These conversations usually ended with the older sister, Filomena, saying, “Well, you can’t fight City Hall.” It was one of the few English expressions she could say clearly, understandable even to those not well-versed in Italian-tinted English. Almost once a visit, Filomena would declare to me that City Hall could not be fought.
The other day I was leaving the kids jiu jitsu class that I started assisting. (I know. We have a lot to catch up on.) In my head, I heard Filomena say those words: You can’t fight City Hall.
My blog has documented well the outsider feelings I have as a woman on the male-dominated mats of jiu jitsu. I guess I thought the kids class would be different. It’s not. It’s more of the same. When it comes time to work with me, I see the boys avert their eyes to the other male coaches or another member of the class, hoping that lack of eye contact will “save” them. At first I thought, Maybe it’s just the pre-teen weirdness of rolling with a female. That could be it.
But the other day one of them got stuck working with me and said, “This time can you go full force?”as if he was insulted that in the past I had not. “Do you want me to?” I asked. “I don’t know . . .” he said. This summed up his whole dilemma for me. He was anxious that I wasn't going full force and it would look like a “girl” was taking it easy on him, but he was also afraid that if I didn't go easy on him a “girl” would crush him. He didn't have these same concerns with the male coaches.
(I use the word girl here, because I think in those moments that's what I was to him, even though I am I’m a 48-year-old purple-belted woman who clearly should have some skill over a white-belted 11-year-old boy, if there is any truth to jiu jitsu.)
I'm not sure why I thought maybe kids would be different. This youngster is simply reflecting his culture. Filomena’s words came back to me: You can’t fight City Hall. As women in jiu jitsu, we can’t fight City Hall. After eight years of jiu jitsu, it still stings. I bet it always will.
*After reading this post, many of you jiu jitsu playahs, well-versed in fighting, are saying, "Wait a minute Shark Girl! You may not be able to fight City Hall . . . directly. After all, isn't that what jiu jitsu is about? Figuring out how to fight the bigger, stronger opponent?" To you, I say, "Well played." You are absolutely right! No self-respecting jiu jitsuer would try to break down the locked front door. No, we look for the key under the mat at back door. Now, I'm going to stop before you all take this in some, tawdry, NSFW metaphorical way. But know this: I have a companion piece percolating about how we actually can fight City Hall, but we have to do it jiu jitsu style. Stay tuned!