Grappling with bullying Local teen turns to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in response to bullying and now excels at sport
By: LESLIE PENKUNAS Review Correspondent, Staff Writer
Ben Smith, 16, of Ephrata, may look slight, but he is a fierce competitor. The high school junior has traveled around the region to compete in grappling competitions using Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu techniques. He fares well. Most recently, on Sept. 29, he placed first in both events in which he competed at the AGA Pennsylvania Grappling Championship in Broomall.
A few months ago, Ben compiled enough points at an event to earn his own individual trophies and one for his team, Lancaster Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy (LBJJ). He was the only representative from LBJJ that day.
Ben’s coaches at the Ephrata-based studio and his parents are not surprised by his success. Since taking up the sport a little more than two years ago, he has had a singular focus to master it. His driving motivation initially was self-defense, due to bullying that had gotten so bad by ninth grade that he withdrew from Ephrata High School and enrolled in Lancaster Mennonite School mid-year.
Bullying is common in ninth grade. According to a May 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Education, it is the second most common grade for it to take place, behind sixth. While anyone can become a victim, children with disabilities and those with special health needs are at a higher risk of being bullied. Ben fit into that latter category; he has been battling Crohn’s Disease, an inflammatory disease of the gastrointestinal track, since he was eight.
"By fifth grade, kids were starting to notice (his illness)," said his mother, Heather Smith. "At that time, he got monthly IV treatments, so he was out at least a day, sometimes two days, a month. He would have to leave to take pills at lunch time. He would have to go to the bathroom all the time. The kids started to question what was going on."
Ben wanted to stop the gossip. He got permission from the school to have the entire fifth grade student body — more than 100 students — assemble so he could tell them about Crohn’s.
"He explained, ‘This is what I have,’" said Heather. "There were times he was on prednisone for months on end, causing his face to get very swollen, so he explained that to them, too. It was phenomenal. I don’t know if I would have been able to do that at age 10."
In fifth and sixth grade, Ben’s classmates were supportive of him. In seventh grade, they even helped him raise $1,200 for the Crohn’s and Colitis Walk in Philadelphia; Ben has raised more than $40,000 for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) over the past four years.
In eighth grade, things at school changed. Some students began to tease Ben about his disease. His mother said that what his classmates had once been so accepting of, they now used against him.
Ben would rather talk about his training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the sport that has given him physical strength and confidence. But because it was his experiences of being bullied that led him to the sport, he opened up a bit about the bullying.
"It started in eighth grade. It wasn’t that bad at all at first," he explained. "It was here and there. But then as the year progressed, it got worse."
He said that in ninth grade, kids picked up where they left off at the end of eighth. "It was just as bad as ever."
Ben explained that most of the bullying was verbal — hateful words — and emotional. "Sometimes it was physical," he said. And anyone could turn on him. "At one point, at a football game, I was sitting with a so-called friend, and he was making fun of me. He knocked my glasses off my face."
At first, his parents were not aware of what was happening to their son.
"He kept it to himself," said Heather. "He was a straight-A student, and his grades dropped." She said that despite working with the school, the bullying did not stop. "We just needed to get him out of the situation."
In January of his freshman year, they withdrew him from Ephrata and enrolled him in Lancaster Mennonite.
"It took him a while to get back some of his self-esteem," said Heather. "It was a hard road for him." What helped was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Heather works with Terry Arment, a police officer who is an instructor at LBJJ. She thought that this style of Jiu-Jitsu would benefit Ben, help to build his confidence and allow him to feel like he had some control over his body, and over his situation. He began lessons a few months before leaving Ephrata.
"I connected with it so fast," said Ben, who had played soccer when he was younger. "It came to me so easily. But it requires a lot more endurance, and a lot more flexibility than other sports that I’ve played. It requires a lot more strength and technique than anything I’ve ever seen or done."
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu differs from martial arts like Karate and Tai Kwan Do. The emphasis is on learning how to defend oneself in real-life situations. By using leverage, balance, and pressure, a person can control and ultimately submit a larger, stronger opponent.
"About 80 percent of what we do is on the ground. It’s more of a grappling, wrestling situation," said Arment, Ben’s coach at LBJJ. "We’re not throwing punches, gouging people in the eyes, things like that. We have a saying — ‘position before submission.’ So you want to gain a position before you would try any of the head locks or chokes."
From the start, Ben has been an ideal student. When he first walked into the studio, he was "really small and thin," said Arment. He observed that from Ben’s experiences with the bullying, "he wasn’t really aggressive at first. But he’s very astute, very focused. If he didn’t get something right away, he wanted me to show him 50 more times till he got it. By far, he’s one of my better students, if not the best."
Ben takes classes three to five times a week, and helps teach a children’s class as well. He has a green belt — the highest color attainable in the children’s division, which goes until age 16, which Ben turned this summer. Now he is in line to get his blue belt.
"In the adult program, it’ll take two to three years to go from one belt to the next," said Arment. "So it can take six to eight years to get a black belt. Patience has to be a virtue. If you’re here for the belts, you might be disappointed."
When asked what attracted him to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Ben said he liked that it was something he could master with enough perseverance, and use if necessary.
Ben is doing well at Lancaster Mennonite. His grades are good, and he especially enjoys history and some electives, including metal working. He has not experienced any bullying. But he does get to put all that training into practice, as he racks up the trophies at competitions.
"They’re kind of like a real-life test," said Arment. "You go against people you have no idea what they’re like. You don’t even know what style (some of your opponents are) going to use — if they’re a wrestler or a judo practitioner — so you go out there and you’re just applying what you know and you do very, very well, and that can’t help but boost your confidence."
Ben’s confidence is healthy. He is looking forward to more competitions, teaching classes, and earning his blue belt. When asked if he thought his experiences with bullying would have been different had he started his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training earlier, he said yes.
"Just them knowing I could take them would have them back off." More BULLYING, page A16