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To my students, I trained in the ring but this is what I fight for

To: The kids who ask me why I still teach

From: Sonya Lamonakis (As told to Lauren Brill)

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To the kids who ask me why I still teach,

Often, many of you ask me, “Why are you a teacher if you are a professional boxer?”

The truth is, growing up, I didn’t know that I wanted to be either. I just knew I wanted to be successful.

Adopted from Greece as a baby, I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts to wonderful Greek parents. They owned a restaurant, liquor store, and convenience store. My parents asked me if I wanted to take over the businesses, and I told them “no.” Instead, I liked the idea of helping people.

While I was always athletic, playing three sports in high school, including softball, which I played in college, I never thought about becoming a professional athlete. So, the focus was always on my education. At first, I became a speech therapist. I wanted to work in a hospital, but I got an internship working in a school.  Quickly, I fell in love with being in the school and seeing how I made kids so happy every day. So, I went back to school to get a degree in teaching.

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After I received my degree, I taught fourth grade in Springfield, Massachusetts. During that time, I went to an ATM late one night, and two people jumped in the back of my car, put a knife to my neck, and robbed me. I went home, and I cried the entire night.  

About a week later, I went to the gym and told my friends what had happened.

They told me,” You should learn boxing. You should learn self-defense.”

So, I went down to the South End Community Center in Springfield and met my first boxing coach, Victor James. Three months later,  I fought a woman who had 24 fights and won the first Gold Medal for the Pan Ams in America. She whipped my butt. But even though I lost, I knew boxing was meant to be a part of my journey. From being in the ring to jumping rope and learning to fight, I loved it all.  And a year later, I came back and fought that same opponent and won.

Ultimately, I moved to New York City, turned pro, and started teaching in New York City public schools.  Boxing gave me instant credibility with all of you.

Students have shown up to class with my stats, or they have said stuff like, “My teacher will knock you out.”

But more than credibility, boxing has given me more confidence.

But more than credibility, boxing has given me more confidence.

When I first started boxing, I was always insecure about my weight. I grew up with filo dough dipped in butter, stuffed in my mouth, and every Greek meal you can imagine, so weight has always been an issue for me. As a child, I was bullied.

Around 2011, I remember reading a horribly insulting comment on the internet – something to the effect that I shouldn’t be boxing and heavyweights are slow.  In the comments, everyone started defending me.

A little bit down, there was one comment that said, “She really doesn’t care what you think.”

I took that to heart, and at that moment, I never flinched again about anything I saw online. It was the last time I was insulted or cried or had my feelings hurt.

And I continued to box by night and teach by day.

As a teacher, I care more about your well-being than you memorizing Pythagorean theorems or something that’s not going to really matter.  I care about your emotional state and that you are safe when you are not in school.

Through the years, a lot of students have come back and thanked me. They thanked me for buying them clothes and food, not snitching on them, and giving them opportunities. I helped one of my kids get a YouTube contract because he was making little videos. Now, he’s excelling in music.  

I have always tried to be there for all of you, and you certainly have been there for me.

In 2014, I traveled to St. Martin to face a world champion. She was a little bit older, she was a tough girl, and she had already won a world title.  After the fight, in my heart, I knew I won, but I didn’t know if the judges would give it to me.

 I was waiting for the decision when they said, “And the new…”

Before he finished the sentence, I dropped to my knees, hitting the floor. Then, I started screaming, “Mom!”  That’s when my mom came running to the ring, and I gave her a big hug. The referee took my hand, and I stood up as he declared me a world champion. It was at that moment I knew I could do anything I set my mind to do.

Sonya won a world title

That Monday, I went back to school with my new belt. It was like John Cena just showed up. All of the students there at the time were so excited and so proud of me. All the hard work and long days led me to a world title, one of my proudest accomplishments, only to be met recently by something we achieved together in school.

A few years ago,  I noticed all these schools around our school, PS 183 in Rockaway Beach, Queens, got new playgrounds. So, I took my seventh graders outside one day and asked them to measure the yard. I wrote a letter to Donovan Richards, who was the district rep, and I started attending town meetings. I just kept pushing and pushing, and I wasn’t going away until all of you also got a new playground. One day, he finally responded. He came to our school, and I showed him the plans. He was so happy that we created the initial ideas for the playground together.  After three years of meetings, phone calls, and picking out materials, they are going to start building in just a few weeks.

When we got approved for a 1.3 million dollar grant, I remember I went outside my condo right behind our school and stared at the spot where they will build the playground for a good five minutes. Then, I began to cry. I couldn’t believe I was going to be able to do this for all of you. It was like winning a world title all over again.

plans for PS 183’s new playground

These last two years, I tore both my rotator cuffs and had two surgeries. I am on the up and up and back in the gym training. If I get to fight again, cool. If I don’t, I am alright with that.  There are so many ways I am still involved with the sport. I am the vice president and registration chair of USA Boxing Metro, which creates opportunities for kids in New York City. Also, I am a part of Give A Kid A Dream Charity out of Gleason’s Gym, which helps disadvantaged youth become champions in life through boxing.

The sport of boxing has given me so much. I have shadowboxed in the ring with Usher, met Mike Tyson, and traveled the world. The sport has shown me I can beat the odds.  It has given me a level of self-confidence and empowerment, allowing me to achieve more success than I ever imagined as a child.

But success isn’t about the money I make or the titles I have won. It’s about being a good person and giving to others.  

So, I am thankful for the sport because even though I initially stepped in the ring for myself, boxing trained me to fight for all of you.

Boxing is my hobby, but I teach because all of you are my purpose.

Mrs. Lamonakis

Sonya Lamonakis
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