Fencing Classes at P.S. 340 a Hit with Students!

By SARAH HUFFMAN

STUDENTS AT PS 340, 25 West 195th Street in Kingsbridge Heights, practice fencing with coach Luka Oboladze on Friday, March 11, 2022.
Photo by Adi Talwar

For the past several months, around 20 PS 340 students have been gathering in the school cafeteria every Friday afternoon to learn the art and sport of fencing. Taught by an elite trainer who has competed both nationally and internationally, Kingsbridge Heights Public School students learn the basic terminology and footwork associated with martial arts while donning impressive, protective fencing gear and for fun handle a sword!

The school’s new fencing program was made possible by Amy Turchiaro, the school’s psychologist, who pushed for finding a way to introduce fencing to students. “A long time ago I wanted fencing in schools because it’s justice, you know?” she said. “I think [in] inner-city schools….these children have no chance [to try fencing] because it’s expensive.”

Turchiaro is part of the Tim Morehouse Fencing CAlub, located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She fenced as a child and in college, but dropped the sport in her adult life. She started fencing again just over two years ago, just before the pandemic hit, when she was considering taking adult classes. Since then she has taken classes both virtually and in person and has even attended a few tournaments.

“I love it,” Turchiaro said. “It’s just a great sport and that’s why I’m so excited that these kids have the opportunity to be a part of it. Maybe some will do it again, some maybe not, but when they all grow up, when they decide to go to college, and when they offer fencing in college; you never know! You can just jump right in and say, “Hey! I did this when I was a kid!’”

STUDENTS AT PS 340, located at 25 West 195th Street in Kingsbridge Heights, practice fencing with coach Luka Oboladze on Friday, March 11, 2022.
Photo by Adi Talwar

According to the Academy of Fencing Masters Blog, and contrary to what is portrayed in Hollywood movies, in modern fencing the blade of the sword is not sharp. The tip is flat and protected by a rubber pad or metal button. The foil, at 500 grams the lightest type of sword used by beginners, also flexes under pressure, reducing the physical impact of a target ‘touch’ on an opponent’s body. Points are awarded for “touching” an opponent’s torso with the flat point of the sword. This is also the origin of the phrase “Touche!” means “touched”, often heard in films.

According to Olympics.com, fencing requires speed, anticipation, reflexes and great mental strength. The footwork is not unlike that of a boxer. In addition to the foil sword, the heavier swords also include the epee and the sabre, which have different compositions, techniques and target areas on the body.

According to Turchiaro, the children have half an hour after school to eat a snack and do homework, which they must prove before receiving it “in the garden” for her fencing lessons. As many might recognize from movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, in the garden is French for “on guard” and is the expression uttered by referees to instruct fencers to position themselves before the start of the bout.

STUDENTS AT PS 340, located at 25 West 195th Street in Kingsbridge Heights, practice fencing with Coach Huey Tan on Friday, March 11, 2022.
Photo by Adi Talwar

At the moment the school doesn’t have enough equipment for every single student, so half of the kids work with one coach while wearing the available protective gear and handling the available swords, while other kids practice their footwork and fencing moves with another instructor. After half an hour, the children switch for another 30 minutes.

Turchiaro said the school plans to host an on-site tournament at the end of the school year where students could show off what they’ve learned. A student named Donik said he wanted to join the club because he had tried karate and martial arts before and had always been interested in becoming an athlete. “I learned how to parry,” he said, referring to a specific technique in which a fencer blocks an opponent’s attack with the sword, rather than retreating backwards to evade the attacker’s advance.

“I learned the moves, the stances, how to dodge my opponents’ attacks and how to attack my opponents,” Donik said. Another student, Jayda, said she learned how to lunge (a forward thrusting motion used when attempting to touch an opponent’s torso with the sword), retreat, and recover. She is looking forward to the competition at the end of the year. Another student, Kamila, said she joined fencing because she thought it would be fun to move.

STUDENTS PARTICIPANTS in a 10-week fencing program at PS 340, 25 West 195th Street in the Kingsbridge Heights borough of the Bronx, practice their skills on Friday, March 11, 2022.
Photo by Adi Talwar

Turchiaro said some of the children showed real talent and she wants to refer them to a fencing school that has a more affordable tiered fee schedule. She had long wanted to bring fencing into schools and began talking about it with Huey Tan, another member of the Tim Morehouse Fencing Club.

Tan, senior vice president at Signature Bank, informed Turchiaro that her company had a grant that the school could apply for to fund its fencing program. The two applied for the scholarship and won $10,000 to pay for a trainer and equipment for the kids.

“It’s a very generous grant to start from scratch,” Tan said Norwood News. “I think the most important thing is that the idea was really there. Amy loves fencing. She always wanted to give to the school because fencing is usually a very expensive sport and she loved school so much and then my bank happened to have special grants.”

FENCING COURSES AT PS 340, 25 West 195th Street in Kingsbridge Heights, were initiated by school psychologist and amateur fencer Amy Turchiaro (left). Huey Tan (center), also a fencer, was instrumental in securing a grant from her company, Signature Bank, to fund the program. Together with head coach Luka Oboladze (right) she also assists in coaching the students.
Photo by Adi Talwar

Tan volunteers at Turchiaro every Friday after school, helping coach Luka Oboladze with the kids. Oboladze works as a coach at the Tim Morehouse Club but agreed to come to the school because he enjoys working with children and knows many of them cannot afford to take classes at the club. “Then you see the smile when you see that they’re doing a good job and you’re happy about that,” he said. “When you see them getting results, they grow up, they learn and you help them; it’s part of your job. It’s just a wonderful feeling.”

Turchiaro said in addition to finding funding and an instructor, the school must also have the program approved by the New York Department of Education (DOE) and the school board. After winning the scholarship, they were able to transfer the money to the DOE and took the summer of 2021 to complete the necessary paperwork.

“The principal, the vice principal, they were so supportive and so helpful,” said Tuchiaro. “I was a madman and they put up with my madness! However, this is an incredible school. It’s an unusual school. It’s like a real family here. They are so open and just love people.”

STUDENTS PARTICIPANTS in a 10-week fencing program at PS 340 at 25 West 195th Street in the Kingsbridge Heights borough of the Bronx practice their skills on Friday, March 11, 2022 with coach Luka Oboladze.
Photo by Adi Talwar

Turchiaro explained that when the school originally sent out a general registration form, it ended up receiving much more interest than expected and was not able to accommodate everyone in the first round, but hopes to hold more sessions in the future.

Aundree Noriega, assistant principal at PS 340, said that to gauge interest, they showed students at the end of their senior year a fencing video of a young New Jersey student and another of a man and woman competing in the Olympics. After the video, Turchiaro told the kids that fencing is something they could aspire to and that just because it’s expensive and a top-level sport doesn’t mean it’s something they can’t try.

They put out feelers to the students and got 40 children to express their interest. This year they sent out the admission slips and got back 200 applications for 20 places in the current season, which lasts 10 weeks. The aim is to take on a new group of students next season.

PS 340 director Alexei Nichols said that there weren’t many fencing programs in the Bronx and that Turchiaro was excited when she approached them about the idea. “She was very persistent and she came to us and we were like, ‘Absolutely! Like… make it happen!’” Nichols said.

WET TRAINER LUKA Oboladze helps a schoolgirl on Friday, April 11.
Photo by Adi Talwar

Turchiaro said the kids love the club and that it helps them learn perseverance and perseverance, to be more attentive and to follow directions. “It was just great to see,” she said. “They didn’t know how difficult it was going to be. They say, ‘Oh, our muscles are sore! I don’t know if I can!’ We had to give them a little encouragement because these mats are heavy. The equipment is a bit uncomfortable and you really need to position yourself correctly and you know, “Watch out! Advance payment! Retreat!’ There’s a lot of language they use.”

Noriega said fencing also helps students apply the skills they learn in class during the school day. Meanwhile, Nichols said some students attended the first session and decided the sport wasn’t for them. She said the majority, however, accept the words of encouragement and keep trying the sport.

She added that the children must do their jobs, be a good citizen and be respectful during the day in order to attend fencing lessons after school. She said more children behaved because they wanted to attend class.

COACH, HUEY TAN, helps a student on Friday, April 11.
Photo by Adi Talwar

Meanwhile, Nichols said, “We always say ‘healthy body, healthy mind, healthy mind, happy kid!’ The more they get fit and can train their muscles and learn how to get fit, the more comfortable they feel. We’re very into wellness and this is a program that fits that.”

Nichols and Noriega also agree that it’s about access and visibility for the kids. “Even though we’re a public school, we always say that we want the kids to get the same attention and opportunities that they get in a private school,” Noriega added.

For Turchiaro, she said fencing opens doors for children, as does international travel for tournaments and college scholarships. Noriega echoed this, adding that there are many opportunities for high school and college scholarships if one of the kids goes on to the sport on their own. “Anything that makes a kid smile like that with a sword in his hand has to be worth something,” she said.

*Síle Moloney contributed to this story.

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