Fighting Back: Black Belt Beauty Queen Overcomes Bullying, Teaches Youth
Cynthia Thompson fought through bullies, misconceptions and a learning disorder to become a leader and role model to young girls.
Updated Sept. 15, 2011: Cynthia Thompson has been chosen as Huffington Post's "Greatest Person of the Day" because of her amazing accomplishments and the positive impact she has had on her community. She is featured here and can also be found on the Huffington Post's Impact page.
Sickle-like Asian Kama blades swing in smooth motions behind a Chicago Heights home, cutting through the hot summer humidity of a Friday afternoon.
Cynthia Thompson is a 15-year science teacher. She's also a former Illinois beauty queen and a Coors Light girl, not to mention an outspoken Heights resident, who voices her concerns at City Hall from time to time.
To the teenagers standing in her back yard, Cynthia is an eighth-degree black belt with more than 30 years of karate experience. She has created her own signature style of martial arts, called "Sho Do Ryu," which incorporates important lessons from her past into fighting and defense techniques.
Her story is one of torment, perseverance and maturity, inspiring and sometimes maddening.
The Light Bright Girl
In her early days at Scanlan Elementary School in Chicago's Roseland community, Cynthia says she was introduced to a specific kind of alienation.
"I didn’t speak like the kids in the school, I didn’t look like them, I had blond hair and I was light bright," she said. "I had never experienced black-on-black racism, where you get discriminated against because of the color of your skin by a black (person). I was light and they were dark."
A group of girls bullied Cynthia for the better part of seven years, from 1972 to 1979, going through the typical acts of a bully, such as taking her lunch.
Sometimes the torment would cross a line, notably when the girls went so far as to tear Cynthia's clothes off and send her home naked. But Cynthia found inspiration in a close friend.
"This girl named Cynthia Nunley, she’s my best friend to this day, she was determined to teach me how to fight back," Cynthia said. "So, I started fighting. I got tired of all them beating me up."
The Martial Artist
From 1979 to 1983, Cynthia studied a style of martial arts called "Shoto Kan," but it wasn't until she attended Olive-Harvey College on the South Side and was met with the age-old challenge of chauvinism, that Cynthia became inspired to hone her skills.
" I kept hearing this man say, ‘Women are punks, women are sissies,” she recalled. "So, I challenged him. I told him, ‘I can do anything you can do.'"
Months later Cynthia met Larry C. Tankson, the instructor that would change the way she saw herself.
"He was one of the most positive and influential martial artists that I’ve met, and he was so encouraging to me," she said. "He said, ‘You’re good, and you’re going to be one of the top rated females in the nation.'"
Cynthia proved him right, earning her first-degree black belt in August 1985. She continued to better her skill set and won gold medals in World Kickboxing and Karate Association competitions for more than 25 years. All the while, Cynthia continued studying under Tankson, as well as Preston and Otis Baker.
The light bright girl's crowning glory came Nov. 11, 2005, when she was officially inducted into the International Karate Hall of Fame.
The Beauty Queen
In her early months of training with Larry Tankson, Cynthia got a strange bit of advice from her karate master.
"He said, ‘You have a face that could be on the cover of a magazine. You should enter pageants,'" Cynthia remembered.
So she did, using karate kata as her talent in the pageants. It went over well and Cynthia went on to win several beauty competitions, including Miss Black Illinois in 1989.
The pageants led to modeling contracts and for a while Chicagoans could look up and see Cynthia's face on a billboard.
"I was the Coors Light girl," she said. "I came home, driving on I-94, and said ‘Wow that’s me on the billboard!'"
Cynthia's modeling, pageants and karate competitions eventually landed her in Colorado, where a friend asked her a sobering question.
"My agent told me in 1993 or '94, ‘What do you have to fall back on if you gain an ounce of weight and they don’t want to use you anymore?’" she recalled.
The thought inspired Cynthia to reconsider her priorities. "That made me think, so I went back to school."
Cynthia has been a science teacher for Chicago Public Schools since 1996, and has also been a technology coordinator for more than a decade. She is currently working at Horace Mann Elementary School, where she takes a less direct approach to teaching science.
"We infuse science in the curriculum, but it’s a higher order of thinking," Cynthia said. "Instead of spoon feeding, we are posing the problems to them, making them think and allowing them to explore it on their own. When you see the kids say ‘Wow, I figured this out,’ that’s what inquiry science is."
As much as she enjoys teaching, Cynthia says she would have struggled as a student in the classroom if not for karate.
"I had a condition, and I knew that I did not perform well on tests in school," she said. "I struggled academically taking assessments all through college. I had a short attention span."
Karate taught Cynthia the focus and discipline she needed to pursue her interests, making martial arts a personal and academic tool of empowerment.
Now the goal is to take everything she learned as a student of karate and as a teacher and instill it in her pupils.
"I tutor students in math and technology and help them with their homework and the science fairs," she said. “It’s so that when they become a black belt, they are comfortable with teaching the ranks below them.”
Cynthia started the non-profit Thompson's Karate Academy and Foundation in 1996, inspired by the words of her masters.
"My instructors Preston (Baker), Otis (Baker) and Larry Tankson told me that it was time for me to do my own thing," she said. " I did my foundation because I know that a lot of kids can’t afford it. It’s an opportunity to give back to society what my instructors gave me."
The academy is run out of Cynthia's own back yard in Chicago Heights and costs $25 per month. The fee is for transportation, as well as room and board costs, as students get to travel and compete internationally.
The students have won gold medals in Scotland and Spain in past years, as part of the North American Sport Karate Association, but Cynthia says funding the trips is getting increasingly difficult.
"People make promises to give us money, they ask us to do demonstrations, but they don’t come through on their end," she said. "So we sell chocolate and do car washes, but it’s difficult."
Regardless of the financial burden, Cynthia says she has an open door policy, offering children of all ages instruction.
The light bright girl has found a way to pass her gift on to a new generation, right here in Chicago Heights.
To learn more about the Thompson's Karate Acedmy and Foundation, contact Cynthia Thompson at 708-283-9965. You can also visit the foundation's Facebook page.