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In this Lean-In style inspirational memoir, twelve-year-old Jesselyn Silva offers a ringside seat to girl power and what it takes to win in the ring and in life: punch by punch. My Corner of the Ring shows kids what it means to be true to yourself and stick with your dreams even when facing adversity and ridicule. Supported by her single dad, Jesselyn (JessZilla in the ring) first donned her boxing gloves at seven years of age, making her one of very few female boxers in the country. My Corner of the Ring charts Jesselyn's oft times exhilarating and heartbreaking journey to success in a male dominated sport where she struggles to find partners to spar with and combats the viewpoint that no one wants to see a girl fight. Despite an inhospitable environment, Jesselyn still has her sights set on the Olympics. With the help of her very dad, Pedro, who has instilled in her a strong work ethic, she just might make it. It is an exciting and motivational read that will provide kids with the roadmap and encouragement to accomplish whatever goals they set for themselves. Jesselyn's positive can-do attitude and determination make this a must read.
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One - THE PLAYGROUND
“This is the only blood I want to see from you today.”
Then came the yank.
I stared at the baby tooth Papi had just pulled from my mouth, small and delicate like a little pearl in his large hand, and I thought that pinch of pain was probably nothing compared with what was about to happen.
“Your mouthpiece should fit better now without that wiggly tooth,” Papi said, tucking it into his jeans pocket for safekeeping. My father was good at keeping calm in moments when he knew I was nervous.
It was a cool fall day in Edgewater, New Jersey, but inside Jim’s Gym (commonly referred to as The Jim) it was a steam bath. Guys had stopped their training routines to watch “the girl” box. “The girl” . . . as if I were some carnival curiosity.
“The girl is gonna get trounced,” I heard a teenaged boy say to his friend as I walked to the boxing ring.
I wanted to make some in-your-face comeback, but I stayed silent. I mean, he was probably right. I’d been training for only two months, and what business did I have fighting a ten-year-old boy when I had so little experience? Plus, I was only seven years old, and because I was tiny for my age, I looked even younger. People told me I was too young, too little to box. But what did they know?
What they didn’t know was that I’d never shied away from a challenge. In fact, the harder the challenge, the better. Papi said that when I was a baby, whenever anyone tried to help me, I’d say, “No, me, I do it!” It became a joke in the family. I don’t know where bravery comes from. Maybe you’re just born with it. For me, bravery happened because I didn’t like the feeling of being afraid; I much preferred the feeling of being strong, so when I thought something might be scary, I would go after it and tackle it head-on before it got the better of me. I guess if there were actually ever a monster under my bed, that monster would be in trouble.
I remember when I first got into boxing, coming to it with a rush of adrenaline, nervousness, and excitement. Watching two people box was like nothing I’d ever seen before: two people facing their fears and being brave. Maybe that’s why they call the boxing ring “the playground.” Grown men came here to get their noses busted and their egos shattered, but they also came to play with their fears. I knew why most people thought this was no place for a little kid, but to me it was the best playground I’d ever been to in my entire life.
But when you’re in the ring, facing your opponent, even the toughest person gets the butterflies.
Another teenaged boy cracked a joke that I couldn’t hear—just the peal of laughter that followed.
“They’re just messin’ with your head, Jess.” That was my trainer, Paulie. He was fitting me with the smallest boxing equipment he could find. Paulie was my very first boxing coach. He was this tough middle-aged African American guy with all-white hair and baggy pants. I liked him a lot—even though he cursed a lot.
“Here. It’s my niece’s headgear.” He placed it loosely over my head. “Can you see okay?” He already knew the answer.
His niece was fifteen.
Even when I tucked all of my long brown hair under the helmet, it was still loose.
“No,” I mumbled. I was barely able to see past the rim. “Good!” He gave a firm tap on my head.
I had watched Ali face off against Frazier in an old fight on TV, and they weren’t wearing headgear. From my angle now, that seemed crazy.
Paulie hollered to the group of boys, “Jess is ready for a throwdown!” I thought I was ready to take someone down, but judging by my dad’s body language, I could tell he wasn’t so sure. There was a 50 percent chance of a throwdown, 50 percent chance I got between the ropes and forgot everything I had learned.
I’d never sparred with a boy before, and I’m pretty sure my opponent had never sparred with a girl. Actually, I’d never sparred with anyone before. When you first start training, you shadowbox. At seven years old, that’s all I’d ever done—box my own shadow. A few jabs with the coach, some basic practice rounds with a couple other kids, but nothing close to a one-on-one match.
The boy I was about to spar with had a funny little cupcake of an Afro and was older by three years, and stronger; he was also much taller than I expected, which meant my uppercuts might not hit exactly where I wanted them to. I’d have to adjust. I’d learn on the fly.
“Here she is,” I heard his coach say to the boy on the other side of the ring, gesturing in my direction. The boy was pacing back and forth in his corner like a garbage-tipping raccoon, his back to me. Anxious, unsure. He nodded to his coach a few times before looking over. But the moment he saw me, he chuckled in relief. Then something crossed his mind and his face froze. What if he lost to me? A little girl! I guess it would have been harder for him to lose to me than for me to lose to him. Secretly, everybody fears the underdog. I was definitely the underdog.
Still, he was sweating it. I could see it glistening on his forehead. Or maybe it was just the Vaseline on his face. I figured he was probably wondering how to hit a girl—low and tough, but not too tough. Actually I really had no idea what he was thinking. It looked like we were both a little anxious, but for different reasons. If I won, it would be a shocker, and if he lost, it would be a shocker.
“Don’t be nervous, Gregie! You got this!” his mother, dressed up for the occasion, cheered below the ropes.
Papi adjusted my gloves and slipped in my mouthpiece as I listened to last-minute advice from Paulie: Make sure you bring the punches back to your face, where you can block better, make sure to keep your head constantly moving, don’t be a still target, you wanna be moving and avoid punches. But it went in one ear and out the other. The wobbly headgear made me feel like a bobblehead figurine. And that’s the last thing I wanted to feel like: one solid strike and my head would pop off.