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Wrestling With My Anger
I turned my rage into winning
Shateek Palmer

By Shateek Palmer

I was 9 years old when my grandmother died and I was taken from my family by ACS (New York City’s Children’s Services). I felt like I was the only person in the world; I didn’t want to talk to anybody. ACS placed me in a foster home on the west side of Harlem in Manhattan.

I got into a lot of trouble in school because I wasn’t able to control my anger. I was mad at the world because my grandmother had died and I’d been taken away from my family. After a month in the foster home, my sister and I were placed with my Great Aunt Stacey. She lived in Roosevelt Island, which is between Manhattan and Queens. I liked it there, but I still got into trouble.

Aunt Stacey signed me up for the school near her. I didn’t want to go because I worried I was just going to get in trouble like I did in my other school. I was in the 4th grade and I wasn’t talking to anybody. My teacher tried to make me talk, but I didn’t. I was on the basketball team, but I got kicked off because of my behavior in school.

After that my gym teacher, Mr. Luce, asked me if I would like to join the wrestling team. I said no, but he kept asking. I kept saying no until he called my aunt and told her he wanted me in wrestling. He said he could see the anger in me, and he wanted me to use that anger in a positive way.

When I found out that Mr. Luce had called my aunt I felt that I was being forced into something I didn’t want to do. I had in my head that wrestling was gay because of the singlets they had to wear (tight one-piece uniforms) and it was boys on top of boys. But my aunt said she also wanted me to wrestle to use my anger another way and hopefully stay out of trouble. I finally came to my senses and became a member of the wrestling team.

The New Kid

Practice was every day from 3 to 5 p.m. The first time I went it smelled like gym socks and sweaty underwear and was as loud as a music concert. I felt like a lonely boat trapped at sea because everybody knew each other and I was just the new kid.

Mr. Luce seemed nice until wrestling practice started. Then he yelled and made us run nonstop for 30 minutes. Then we did push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups, and practiced moves on a partner. It was really hard and I wasn’t good at wrestling. I tried to act tough, but I was really scared inside.

When you first start to wrestle, you feel like a practice dummy because you don’t know the moves the other person is doing. The first move I learned was the headlock, and it took me a couple of weeks to learn it. When you learn a move in wrestling practice, you don’t just do it once and you’re done; you have to work on the move to get it down pat.

Our first team wrestling match was only four weeks after I joined the team. I was asked to wrestle at 86 pounds, a low weight for our team. That made me happy because you’re more likely to win in a lower weight class.

image by Terrence Taylor

But then I saw the person I was going against. He was tall, and his muscles were unbelievable. He looked fast and he was. I was pinned in 35 seconds, and I began to cry right after. My teammates laughed at me.

Training to Win

I promised myself the next time we went against that team, I was going to kick that guy’s butt. I learned from my teammates and from Mr. Luce. I got better at wrestling by working on every move every day for hours. I went to practice in the morning, during lunch, and also after school. I ate better meals and drank a lot of water and milk. I watched YouTube videos of Olympic wrestlers such as Terry Brands and John Smith.

About a month later we faced that team again, and I had to wrestle the same boy. I walked to the mat with “positive win” running though my head. My coach and my teammates helped me by telling me never to give up and never to show I was scared. But I was a little scared because he had beaten me before.

When we got to the mat, I started thinking about getting taken away from my family and when my grandmother died. My strategy was to get mad by thinking about my grandmother’s death and then use my anger to win my match. My grandmother was like the mother I always wanted. My real mother walked in and out my life and put my grandmother though hell. Thinking about my grandmother leads me to my anger at my mother.

My opponent tried to do the move he beat me with last time, but it wasn’t working. I smiled at him, then I flipped him onto the end of the mat and gained two points. I could have finished him there, but I let him get up. Then I ankle-picked him and gained two more points.

I started to laugh at him. I started to think about my grandmother and my mother and felt like I could kill someone. When you wrestle it feels like you and your opponent are the only two people in the world. You’re fighting for your life; you have to win the match.

Then I put him in a headlock and pinned him. Before I walked off the mat I shook my head at the other team and then the crowd started to say my name. The match was over and everybody yelled because I won my first match of the year. I walked off the mat with a smile on my face. All the applause seemed like a big reward.

To the City Finals

My wrestling career was good for the next four years. Mr. Luce stayed my coach through 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. In all those years, I only lost twice and I kept getting better. I also didn’t get in that much trouble because I started to really like wrestling, and if I got in trouble I wouldn’t be able to do it. So I just focused on wrestling and school and became less mad at the world.

In 8th grade, I started to compete on a higher level. I got to the finals of the New York City championship; the bout (match) was on my 13th birthday at Hunter College.

image by YC-Art Dept

The gym had so many lights it seemed like I was in heaven. So many people were yelling, including my cousins. They came to cheer me on, and that made me really happy.

My opponent’s name was Paul. I heard my coach talking about what a tough wrestler he was. A little before the match started, Paul and his father came up to me and introduced themselves. His father said, “You and my son Paul are the best wrestlers in the city in your weight class; I’m glad to see you guys wrestling for the championship.” Paul was really friendly to me throughout the whole championship. He shared his candy and we talked a lot until our match.

Wrestling matches are divided into three short periods. In the third period, I was losing by five points. I was about to give up when Mr. Luce called time-out. We walked to the bench and he told me to sit down. He seemed mad but glad at the same time. I was scared he was going to yell at me, but he didn’t. He just talked to me calmly.

He said, “I know you want this. It’s not going to be given to you. You have to take it. I know you don’t want to think about this, but think about your past and get mad! Use your anger in the match. I asked you to be on the team because I know you have a future in wrestling. Now go win the match!”

From Anger to Pride

I walked onto the mat with a mad face on and my teammates started to cheer. They said, “Shateek, you can beat this guy. Put your mind to it!” I started feeling like the wrestling team was becoming my new family.

Paul and I stepped into the center of the mat and shook hands. I started circling him, then hit him with a single leg. Paul hit the mat and I got right on top of him—two points. I let him up and then got him into a headlock. I went for the pin but he got out.

With just 50 seconds left in the match, I was down by two points. Paul started to run around the mat so I couldn’t get him until I finally tripped him and had him on his back. The crowd started to yell. Now, I was winning because I got points for keeping him down on his back. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0,” yelled the crowd. The clock ran out, and I was the city champion. I jumped so high it seemed like I could reach the clouds. The whole team got together and yelled, “ONE TEAM! ONE WORLD! TEAMMATES FOR LIFE!”

“What did I tell you? You won!” said Mr. Luce. My teammates and I got dressed, then went out to eat pizza. Then we all took the F train home to Roosevelt Island.

“Aunt Stacey, I won the city championship!” I yelled when I got home.

“Shateek, I’m so proud of you. Later we are going to go out to eat,” said Aunt Stacey. I was so happy.

I kept winning matches. I became a three-time city champion, a 5th place winner at the state finals upstate, and a runner-up at the national championship. For the first time in my life I completed a goal that I worked hard on. It made me feel like I could do anything with my life if I put my mind to it.

Wrestling taught me how to control my anger on and off the mat, and I was happy I could fight without getting in trouble for it. After I started winning, people from all over kept saying, “You have a great future ahead of you. Keep up the good work.” I believe that wrestling can take me far, including to college.

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