(Curated article via Washington Times)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) – On a steamy summer morning in Memphis, students spanning decades in age filed into Stardust Jiu Jitsu, a small gym space that faces Sam Cooper Boulevard in the Binghampton area.

On a black mat custom-cut to fit a slim space, clad in ultra-light wrestling shoes, the students pair up and start practicing take-down combinations.

As a network of sweat puddles on the mat start to snake around a barrage of dropped knees and elbows, Lucas Trautman, the gym’s owner, weaves between pairs of wrestlers, doling out coaching tips like “Get the inside control,” or “Take your shot!”

Trautman, a practicing psychiatrist, started Stardust in his home garage in 2013. On this particular Saturday, the gym is celebrating its one-year anniversary in their Binghampton space.

Because more than 30 students are packed into the gym, the class divides in half, and alternating sets of students take turns flinging and pinning one another.

The classes are a combination of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and American wrestling, two disciplines that Trautman says are of toughest forms of hand-to-hand combat.

The skills learned in Stardust could easily shape the students into dangerous weapons. As Trautman points out, “There’s no giant footballer who could take on post-pubescent wrestler that’s well-trained and win.”

But if any of Trautman’s students decided to start a fight with a football player just because they could, they would do so in violation of a core teaching at Stardust.

By teaching students – specifically young boys from underserved areas of Memphis -how to empower themselves through grappling, Trautman is hoping to unleash a fleet of peacemakers unto the city; ones who model compassion first and foremost and never raise a hand in violence simply because they can.

The boys are not all right

Stardust Jiu Jitsu has female students, but outside of ensuring they are getting the best possible training, Trautman, who is also a child psychologist, isn’t worried about them as much.

He is, however, worried about the boys of Memphis and the world beyond.

“Girls don’t typically commit mass shootings,” Trautman states flatly. “Why do you think that is?”

Emasculation, Trautman says, comes too easily in the minds of too many men.

Trautman points to a 2018 New York Times opinion article by actor and comedian Michael Ian Black as a piece of writing that summarized his worries succinctly.

In the article, Black writes, “Too many boys are trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others.”

“That was me as a middle schooler,” Trautman recalls. “I was very insecure, very aggressive, I’d tackle players on the football field just to hit them, hard.”

“There’s so much insecurity, and boys are taught they are weak if they are emotionally vulnerable, they’re not ‘a man.’”

It’s why Trautman doesn’t shy away from modeling sensitivity to his students. He frequently tells them he loves them.

“Especially for the young ones, if they see me, their tough wrestling coach, be vulnerable over and over again, I think it sticks with them,” Trautman said.

Trautman credits wrestling on the storied Christian Brothers High School wrestling team – one of the more prestigious high school teams in Tennessee with 21 state championships since 1980 – with helping him break that mindset.

“Once I realized I could defend myself, I realized I had nothing to prove,” Trautman said. “It’s a paradox, but when you train as a warrior, you can obtain the self-confidence and inner peace that you need to be a loving and gentle person in this world.”

Growth through grappling

If a new kid comes into the studio, wound up and overly eager to get physical on the mats, they’re assigned to Jayden Edins, a seventh-grader at Kingsbury Middle School.

With roughly six years of training in jiu-jitsu, 12- year-old Jayden – who stands just under 5 feet – doesn’t need a height or weight advantage over a newcomer.

In jiu-jitsu, height, weight and brawn will always play second fiddle to skill level.

“Even though I know a new kid might go hard after Jayden, and I know they’ll attack him, I also know that Jayden can bring them under control like that,” Trautman said with a quick finger-snap. “He’ll totally ‘daddy lion’ them and make sure they stay safe.”

By “daddy lion,” Trautman means that Jayden knows not to bite at any temptation to use his training to make a point, regardless of any aggression a new student serves up. Jayden can be counted on to control the tempo and temperature of the spar.

In martial arts, the concept is referred to as “mutual benefit” of “Jita Kyoei”. It’s about keeping one another safe.

Jayden, in many ways, already models this concept.

Asked if he ever gets into spats with other kids because he knows he can pin them to the ground, he widens his his eyes.

Too many risks there, he said.

“Well there’s bruises for one or physical injury,” Jayden said. “But also, that’s bullying. And it could cause crippling depression for someone, or suicide, which hurts their family.”

Though he’s approaching the age typically marked by a spike in testosterone in young boys, Jayden doesn’t show any impulse towards aggression when he hit the mats at Stardust on their year-anniversary class.

Instead, Jayden laughs while climbing on top of his cousin, 11-year-old Kelan Branch, and gripping him koala-style.

He continues to laugh, even as Kalen sweeps his legs, rolls on top and pins him down. For a sport so tough, Jayden has no qualms about giggling himself into submission.

It’s what Trautman wants for all of his male students: the freedom to laugh, even when someone one-ups you.

We’re all made of stardust

With one year at the Sam Cooper studio in the books, Trautman hopes to ramp up focused efforts on two initiatives.

Starting next week, Trautman says, the studio will try to increase collaboration with the Memphis Refugee Empowerment Program, and ideally make more room for more child refugees from Uganda.

The second initiative will be organizing self-defense classes for transgender women.

“It’s important to us to help empower vulnerable populations, and trans woman are among the most vulnerable populations in the South,” Trautman said.

The studio is all the richer, Trautman says, because of the diversity found among the high schoolers from Kingsbury, the students from East African countries and the transgender women of Memphis.

“Because at the end of the day,” Trautman said, “We are all built the same, we all have the same components in our bodies. We’re all made from stardust.