Femi Guri knows what it’s like to see things no child should see: He and his family fled Kosovo and came to the United States in 1999 by way of a refugee camp in Macedonia. “I learned how brutal this world could be — fires, bombing, people losing loved ones,” he says. “I sort of skipped part of childhood. I was getting in trouble at school, but boxing was a savior for me.”
Now 27 and a physical education teacher at PS 65 in the South Bronx, Guri believes boxing could be a savior for his students, too. PS 65 is located in one of the poorest Congressional districts in the country; of the 460 students in the pre-K–5 school, 42 percent live in shelters or doubled up with other family members or friends. Guri opened the after-school Boxing Academy in 2014, equipped with donations from people he had met as a personal trainer.
Each of the 25 3rd- through 5th-grade students in the program has a folder where schoolwork and behavior are tracked; they must keep up their schoolwork to participate. Spots in the program are coveted. Students train as boxers and learn how to step back from confrontation. Fighting can get you dropped from the program.
The school has seen a decrease in the number of incident reports since the Boxing Academy and an after-school basketball program began. “The students have made significant improvements in behavior management,” says Jewan Baboolal, the PS 65 chapter leader.
Students like 9-year-old Angel brag about walking away from incendiary situations. “What makes me happy is I get to let go of a little bit of anger in the boxing program,” says the 4th-grader. “Mr. Guri teaches me discipline and how to be calm in a difficult situation.”
Girls participate, too. Samyia demonstrates the boxing position for her 4th-grade classmates. Her stance is precise, one foot carefully placed behind her. “Your right arm goes out, one-two, one-two,” she says punching the bag in front of her. She then proceeds to hold the bag as her classmates take their swings. As a leader of the 4th-grade team, Samyia explains, she has to “stay strong and be a good role model.”
Guri says the students energize him. “I look forward to coming to work because of their passion and willingness to learn,” he said.