Education With a Dose of Zorro

The task may be more daunting than defeating the French or the Italians in an Olympic final. To most children (and adults, for that matter), foil is usually found in a kitchen drawer. Largely the sport of private schools and elite clubs, fencing is practiced by about 4,000 boys and girls in high school, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, making it about as common as riflery or drill team. It has yet to receive the kind of pop culture boost that “The Hunger Games” gave archery. Among fencing’s most noted enthusiasts have been the Three Musketeers, Winston Churchill and Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden.

But the greater barrier has been financial. Competing in junior fencing requires lessons, equipment and travel that may cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month, keeping talented athletes from wielding sabers or masks. Vailsburg Elementary is in one of Newark’s poorest neighborhoods, and 83 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.

“We thought that once people starting winning medals in fencing, things would change,” said Morehouse, who made his first Olympic team in 2004 and won a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Games. “We won six of them in Beijing, but the promise of people fencing in the streets didn’t materialize.”

Morehouse grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, attended school in East Harlem and was introduced to the sport as a seventh grader. In some ways he is bringing the sport back to its urban roots. As a child, Morehouse attended Saturday morning fencing sessions at the nearby Peter Westbrook Foundation, started by a bronze medalist from the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

“Tim has done an amazing job by trying to expand fencing in inner cities,” Westbrook said. “Whenever someone wants to do that, I welcome it. The exposure is better than when I was a kid, but it’s still not popular.”

Westbrook, a Newark native, said he paid for lessons at a local Catholic school and for years was among a handful of black athletes in the sport.

“There’s a huge talent pool in low-income neighborhoods, and it can capture kids,” he said. “Everybody has a little bit of Zorro in them.”

Working out of a corner of Teach for America’s offices in Midtown Manhattan with a fencing mask near his MacBook, Morehouse and his team, including his Olympic teammate Jeff Spear and the Olympic speedskater Maria Cruz Garcia, list their target schools on a dry-erase board. Since Fencing in the Schools was founded, Morehouse estimated that it had reached more than 10,000 children in seven states. He has also invited elite fencers to the United States for events like this weekend’s showcase in Brooklyn so youngsters from his programs can attend.

“A lot of people in the sports world don’t think of us as a serious sport,” he said.

The Fencing in the Schools model aims to teach on a large scale rather than relying only on private instruction. Instead of holding one-off assemblies, the group tries to instruct teachers on the basics of the sport so they can conduct classes on their own. Morehouse and his team have worked with manufacturers to develop more child-friendly introductory equipment than the metal weaponry used by professionals. “Pirates of the Caribbean” references are welcome.

“The kids know they need to put their masks on unless they want to poke an eye out,” said Dennis Wolfe, the athletic director at Democracy Prep Public Schools in New York, which were among the first to adopt Morehouse’s curriculum.

Installing a fencing program costs about $6,000 per school for the first year, and $3,000 or less after that if equipment is shared. Through sponsorships, students can take part for little or no cost.

In some cases, Morehouse cold-calls schools to introduce his plan, often with a donor attached.

“I say, ‘Hey, I’m an Olympian and we have a fencing program someone wants to bring to your school,’ ” Morehouse said. “And they usually think it’s some kind of scam.”

That was not the case at Vailsburg Elementary, where Morehouse’s laptop was soon projecting photographs of him at schools and of President Obama wielding a lightsaber on the White House lawn. The John Williams “Olympic Fanfare” played on a loop. Morehouse tucked his silver medal into the pocket of his track suit “for the reveal” at the presentation’s conclusion. The boys and girls filed into the cafeteria one by one, navy polo shirts tucked into khakis.

Morehouse opened with an image of Yoda brandishing his green lightsaber. The audience responded with a collective “Whoa!”

He told the students of his unlikely rise in the sport. He had fun fencing in high school and college, but was not a champion.

After graduating from Brandeis, Morehouse returned to Washington Heights to teach seventh grade through Teach for America, then decided to also pursue an Olympic berth. For three years, he said, he lost most of his matches.

“I was losing to countries I hadn’t even heard of,” he said, and accumulated $30,000 in debt.

Morehouse flashed a black-and-white image of an Errol Flynn-era fencer, pointing out the crisp lines and clean form.

“This is how you’re supposed to fence,” he said. Then he showed a picture of himself, saber flailing, a leg in the air. “They said I looked like a dog peeing on a fire hydrant.”

That remark drew raucous laughter, but Morehouse said it made him realize “this is how I am.”

He guided the children through a lesson in basic fencing terms and moves, a chorus of “en garde,” “retreat” and “advance” and a climactic face-off between the gym teacher and the school principal. “It was perfect for the message our kids need,” Yasmin Vargas, the principal, said.

The fencing curriculum for the elementary school students, which will begin next month, was the subject of much analysis among the students.

“I’ve seen the Olympics on TV,” Salma Ibrahim said. “I would like to do that.”

Precious Brown liked the presentation, which was the first time she had seen fencing.

Morehouse received a compliment from Mark Marotta, who said, “I liked when he said people might be able to do it their own way.”

Aaron Aryee may have said it best. “Who doesn’t love sword fighting?”

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