When the girls entered the room and saw the man wearing thick padding to protect his groin, they laughed nervously.
Their laughter subsided almost immediately, however, when instructor Donna Chaiet slammed her kneecap hard into the man and yelled, "No."
Chaiet and her partner, Dave Ayala, the man in the bulky, diaper-like protection, had a message for the girls of private Garrison Forest School yesterday - and it didn't have anything to do with polite mixers or the varsity polo team.
"You can all deliver a knockout blow to an adult male," Chaiet told a group of eighth-graders, one of three classes participating in a week-long self-defense and confidence-building course at the school in Owings Mills. "You can drop him to his knees," she said. "You can generate a lot of power."
Control - of a person's body and environment - is what Chaiet and Ayala's program is about. And it's what Garrison Forest parents ordered in hopes of helping their daughters move through life in a bold and courageous manner.
"Our culture creates a stereotype of girls and women that they should be polite and nice," said Headmaster G. Peter O'Neill, who asked Chaiet, president of New York City-based Prepare Inc., to visit the campus a year ago. "We don't give them the tools they need to deal with situations in which they might feel threatened."
During the classes, Chaiet instructed girls how to walk and talk with more confidence. She pointed out when they slouched, mumbled or looked away. She reminded them that eye contact, a steady voice and a strong stance say a lot about a person's attitude. "We want you to project confidence," Chaiet told them.
O'Neill believes Chaiet's course will help students to prepare for life outside the school's parklike setting - not only to defend themselves against possible assailants, but to be assertive in college lecture halls and, later, courtrooms, boardrooms, and emergency rooms.
"They'll be able to ... ask for a raise without sitting there and saying, `Well, I really like working here, and you are really nice, and you know I have a baby to feed,'" said O'Neill. "Instead, they'll say, `I believe I am of value.'"
The training is useful in other office scenarios, said Chaiet, as well as with friends and family members. "You own your body - you get to decide who touches you when," she said. "That includes relatives, teachers and friends."
The value of the lessons wasn't lost on Garrison Forest students, most of whom jabbed and kicked as hard as they could, despite some initial shyness.
Eighth-grader Torie Shelton, 13, of Timonium, a small girl with long hair and a retainer, became assertive when a padded Ayala played the role of a family friend whose touches made her feel uncomfortable.
"I'd really prefer it if you didn't touch me," said Shelton.
"Oh, but we're buddies, right?" said Ayala.
"Sure, but please don't touch me. It makes me uncomfortable," said Shelton, slowly removing his hand from her shoulder.
At the end of the skit, Shelton's classmates clapped loudly; some hooted.
"Polite clapping, please," a teacher warned.
Shelton's classmate, Lauren Yuille, 13, of Owings Mills, said that the class was helpful. "It's important for girls our age to know what to do and ... to know that something like that could happen to us," she said.
In another class, a group of 10th-grade girls learned how to use their lower-body strength to kick back at an attacker.
"It's really no use getting into some sort of a fistfight," said instructor Sharyn McHenry, who worked the room with Shep Clyman, another male instructor dressed, like Ayala, in protective padding.
"If you yell harder, you'll kick harder," McHenry told Forest Boice, 16, of Fallston, who was sprawled on the floor, her right leg raised in a strong kicking position.
With almost every kick, McHenry and Clyman called out, "Beautiful."
Girls called to friends, "We didn't know you had it in you."
"Although the class can be uncomfortable, it's supposed to be reality-based," said Emily Medina, 15, of Reisterstown, who added that her parents worried that the skits might be too real.
"Still, they do think it's a good experience. And so do I."