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RI Monthly: Beat the Streets Brings Wrestling To Middle School

By Jenn McCaffery

Isaiah’s teammates lie down on the edge of the mat, beat on it with their hands and chant his name, as Murray has encouraged them to do. Meanwhile, Murray yells, “Tap the leg, tap the leg!”

It turns out to be a close, high-scoring match, but this time, it’s Isaiah’s hand that ref Tyler Banks holds high at the end of the match. His dad, Stephen Hudson, who is sitting by the door, calls out, “Come here, buddy. Good job.”

Isaiah and his fraternal twin, Elijah, have wrestled in Beat the Streets all year. Elijah, who uses a cane to walk, says his favorite things about wrestling were learning how to defend himself and the competition against other schools.

Murray, who was an All-American wrestler at Rhode Island College, made Elijah captain because he would let him know what was going on with the team and helped the new wrestlers out with pointers.

“I do everything the coach asks me to do, and then I never give up a match,” Elijah says. He often winds up competing against an opponent who is a little bigger than him, but says, “I wrestle no matter what the other person’s weight is.”

His favorite match was the last time Del Sesto competed at Roger Williams. “The first time I wrestled the same kid and lost,” Elijah says. “But the second time I did much better and made him very tired.”

Stephen Hudson appreciates the physical aspect of Beat the Streets program and how it helps keep his sons in shape. They’re both on the honor roll, but they know that they can’t play sports unless their grades are good.

“When your kids are in school, there are a lot of distractions,” Hudson says. “Not everyone’s paying attention, and some kids are taking school seriously. Everybody’s situation is different. You see a lot of kids from single-parent homes, and that makes it even harder. I know a lot of single mothers. It’s a hard job trying to raise your kids, plus work. We’re fortunate in that my wife and I both work, so we get to share in the activities with them.”

But even though his sons have enjoyed wrestling, he also encourages them to branch out. The year is divided into four sessions, and kids can choose different programs each time.

“This is a learning experience,” Hudson says. “He [Isaiah] wants to try something different next year. That’s fine. When they first started out, Elijah had issues with his knee, but he has the endurance of two of me. So I said, no matter how good you are at it, the main thing is to persevere. All anybody asks of you is that you do your best, try your hardest.”

Advocates for the after-school programs say kids who participate in them are much more likely to show up and succeed. A study PASA commissioned of 763 middle school students in Providence that tracked them through high school found that the activities motivate kids to come to school and that the longer the students participate in the programs, the better they do academically.

Thirty percent of the kids who didn’t attend the AfterZone were chronically absent, according to the study. But after students participated in the program for thirty or more days, only 12 percent didn’t come to school regularly.

And of the middle schoolers who took part in the after-school offerings for fifty or more days, 97 percent later graduated from high school. The graduation rate for the Providence school system has improved in recent years, but the city is still looking to increase that number. It is now about 73 percent.

Beat the Streets keeps tabs on how their kids are doing in school. The wrestlers are required to take behavior and grade reports to their teachers and bring them back to their coaches.

In the beginning, Murray says he had kids who had detention every day. So he pulled them aside and asked them why.

“Oh, well, I cursed at a teacher, or oh, I flipped a teacher off,” Murray recalls. “Then I had a little lesson with them. Why did you do what you did? How does that help you? You’re in detention now, when you could be here, enjoying more time at practice. I feel like they’re slowly learning that, that they shouldn’t just stand up to do something to be that cool kid.”

Teachers and the AfterZone staff tell Murray that the grades and behavior of the kids on his team have improved.

“Even the kids I was told to watch out for, this kid was troublesome, or this one likes to take attention away, those kids came the longest way,” Murray says. “Those are usually the kids that want to go on the trips to all the tournaments. It’s great because those are the kids that push the whole team.”

He wishes he could coach them for more than two days a week, so he could have more of an impact. But he says the kids who are really into wrestling are always asking questions to improve themselves: How is that kid better? Why is he better? How can I get better?

But for all the excitement of wrestling and getting to travel to tournaments in Boston and attend an end of the season awards night, keeping kids in the program can be a challenge. The PASA-commissioned study found that students participated in the AfterZone “intensely, but for short periods of time.”

Part of it is that students like the Hudson brothers and Giselle are trying things out, and the AfterZone gives them the chance to sample all kinds of activities. But middle school kids are also pretty easily distracted and might not have transportation in the summertime.

“The kids that don’t show up for a while, I don’t make them feel like they’re doing something wrong,” Murray says. “I tell them I understand this sport is hard and that you might not like certain things that we do, but that the door is always open.”

Giselle’s enthusiasm for wrestling flagged a bit during the second session of the year, Murray says. She loves competing and wants to do well in school, but at the same time, she likes to hang out with her friends during wrestling practice. But she rededicated herself later in the year, which has shown in her performance.

“She’s not afraid to go against any guy, even the toughest ones,” Murray says. “Her parents were always coming to the meets and matches. I would just imagine if I had a daughter and she’s wrestling these bigger guys I’d be a little cautious, maybe say something to the coach. But ‘she loves the sport,’ that’s all they say. ‘She loves working hard.’ ”

The afternoon of the meet, she’s paired up against a girl named Elena from Roger Williams. They meet in the circle in the center of the mat. Giselle assumes the top position behind her and wraps her arms around Elena’s middle.

As they grapple on the mat, Giselle maneuvers to get Elena into a headlock and goes after her legs, but Elena manages to get out of the hold and stands up. As teammates from both sides shout encouragement (“You got this!”), Giselle pins her down.

Banks calls time. Both girls return to the center of the mat and Banks lifts Giselle’s hand in the air. She shakes his hand, walks over to do the same to the Roger Williams coach and pats Elena on the back. Then Giselle turns around, pulls the ponytail holder out of her hair and heads back to her team.

Read the fully story at RIMonthly.