Standing in front of the class, the instructor pulls a family sized packet of cheese puffs from a shopping bag. She squeezes the packet.
Pop! I feel myself jump, even though I knew it was coming. Feels like every member of the class reacted to the sound in some way. We are a jumpy bunch.
There is shuffling and mumbling while looks of puzzled amusement are exchanged.
Are we going to have to stand here watching the teacher eat an enormous bag of snacks in front of us, more importantly, is she going to share?
Her hand dips into the foil bag and comes out with a single cheese puff. She holds the worm like puff, up for all to see. Claps her hands together, reducing the puff to orange powder.
Her serious eyes rove across the room, making contact with each of us in turn as she rubbes her palms together, sprinkling orange crumbs on the wooden floor.
Reaching into the bag she pulls out a handful of puffs and scatters them at her feet, like she’s feeding invisible birds.
Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang! Her boot slams down pulverising the puffs.
There are smiles now and some quite nervous laughter.
The large gap-toothed black lady becomes animated and shouts enthusiastically, ‘You go girl, show dem chips who’s boss. Yeah.’ There is laugher.
‘Thank’s for the encouragement, Queenie, I will.’
Bang! She grinds the last puff into powder.
‘Okay everyone, now it’s your turn. I want ya’ll to do what I just did. Each take a cheese puff, but don’t do anything until I tell you to and no you can’t eat it.’
I watch her walk around the room holding out the bag to each of them in turn, until she comes to me. My hand shakes a little as I reach in. Please don’t let her notice.
She has orange cheese puff powder on her boots, the laces are tied in double knots, her red hair smells like flowers.
We all have a puff now, so she returns to the front of the class.
‘Ok on the count of three crush the sucker with your hands like I did. One, two, three.’
Loud uncoordinated claps eco around the gym. I crush my cheese puff along with the others. Letting the crumbs fall to the floor. I rub my hands together trying to get the sticky orange dust off, but my hands are sweaty and gritty pieces stick to them. I didn’t like the way it feels.
Some other people are rubbing their hands together too. A few have even wiped their hands on their clothes, transferring orange crumbs onto their backsides or down the front of grubby sweatshirts. One guy is licking his dirty orange fingers. Yuck.
‘This time round I want y’all to take a hand full, and drop them on the floor like I did. Once again we will all do it together. Oh and don’t worry too much if your hands get dirty, I have a packet of wet wipes so you can clean them when we are done.’
Once again she walks around the room holding out the packet.
I wouldn’t want to eat out of it, not after some of those hands have been in there.
Rocking a little on my heels I wait for my turn, rubbing my sticky palms together and longing for one of those wet wipes. She smiles at me she as approaches and I feel myself blushing. She’s so dainty and pretty, I’m elephant sized and ugly.
I grab my cheese puffs quickly, drop them on the floor and stomp on them with everyone else when she tells us too. It’s fun but I keep expecting someone important to walk in and say, ‘what are all these street scum doing in here, stomping cheese puffs into our nice gym floor?’
When we are done she hands out the wet wipes and returns to her place at the front of the class. She holds up another cheese puff. Her look is serious enough to silence the room. Even the big lady, Queenie is paying attention.
‘We are all cheese puffs. Bullies, thugs, drug addicts, gang members, pimps, rapists, thieves and corrupt cops are all waiting out there to crush us into nothingness. This is a self-defence class. I’m not here to teach you how to beat these people or how to stop them. Because we can’t beat them and we can’t stop them. Instead, I’m here to teach you skills that will help to keep you alive.
I can show you how to stand up to a bully and how to put him in his place. You could walk away thinking that you have won. But a week later you might be walking down the street when he spots you and puts a bullet in your head.’
There is muttered consensus, some people are nodding in agreement while others shake their heads, seemingly expressing their disapproval at the state of the word.
‘Think of the most precious thing that you own, a wedding ring, a photograph, a shabby old cap. All these things can so easily be lost. The ring can slip off your finger, the photograph can burn up in a fire, your cap could be stolen. I know what it’s like to have nothing but my life. That ‘item’, that you think is so important is nothing but a weakness. The most important thing that you have is your life, and I’m here to show you some techniques to help you to preserve it. That includes knowing when and how to ask for help and knowing when to run like hell.
Our lives, as fragile and as cheesy as they might be, are the most precious and important things that we have. Every morning I thank God, because I have to thank someone, that I am still here and still breathing. There have been plenty of times when I felt that my life was the only thing I had to be grateful for. I believe that everyday is a new adventure and a new opportunity, and everyday that we don’t let the bad guys crush like a cheese puff, means that we win! Now lets run a mop over this floor and get started.’ I clap my hands along with the others.