Interview with a Principal Skater
Skaters tend to drop subtle cues about their specific preferences within skateboarding just by dressing a certain way or stating a few opinions. When another skater notices these cues and recognizes these preferences as similar to their own, friendships can be fast tracked. It can play out like that scene in “Step Brothers” where John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell find out that they share the same interests. “Did we just become best friends? … Yup!” and off they go. Rob James is one of those fellows whose cues we picked up on. We are on the same page with Rob on many topics surrounding skateboarding culture. Rob pursued an interesting career path, which some may find to be incompatible with old school skate mentality. Why somebody would come to that conclusion is an interesting concept in itself…
So...an elementary school principal that also skates - what a clash of worlds! You’re like Seymour Skinner and Bart Simpson put together. What is your status at work like? Does skateboarding make you cool among the students or your colleagues?
I'm very low key about skateboarding at work. I've participated in a small handful of skateboarding events with previous schools that I've worked at, but since moving to my current school, I keep my skateboarding life totally separate from my professional life. Skateboarding is for me, and I don't feel the need to advertise it to folks or kids at work.
I feel like so many skaters can relate to that. Talking about skateboarding to someone who doesn't skateboard can be tough. Oftentimes it's better to avoid the topic than to deal with the inevitable eye rolling frustration.
That is especially true for skaters from my generation. I started skating in 1986. It's not that we weren't proud to be skaters but we definitely did not advertise it to the public. This was way before skateboarding was more generally accepted as it is today…before the Olympics or even X-games. This hesitancy probably came from a fear of judgment. I was scared that whoever I'd be talking to would be like “come on, skateboarding...what are you doing?"
How long have you been a principal and what led you to that career choice
Between being a vice principal and an actual principal - about 13 years now, and I somewhat just stumbled into it to be honest. I completed an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and then thought to myself, "what am I going to do with this?". My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, suggested that I look into teachers' college. I was never someone who dreamed about being a teacher as a kid. The concept never even really crossed my mind, but once I got into it, I totally fell in love with teaching. I ended up teaching a variety of grades and enjoying them all. I actually miss teaching lately. Physically being in a classroom with kids is a lot of fun. To make a long story short, some opportunities presented themselves early on in my career and I jumped on them. One thing led to another and here I am...a principal 13 years later.
Do you remember your elementary or high school principal at all? What did you think of them?
I totally remember them, because I hated them! I was the kid who got into trouble somewhat regularly. I was no stranger to detentions or suspensions from class, so I had to deal with my principal often. I hated all that they stood for.
Well that's interesting. Why do you think that is? In general, how do you feel skateboarding culture perceives formal education?
For me, it all comes down to skateboarding's roots in "counterculture". I got into skating right as Thrashin' was making waves. Skateboarding felt equivalent to biker gang culture. It represented a big "screw you" to everything, including your parents and teachers.
Skateboarding seemed to have acted as a giant bat signal in the sky which was answered by those more inclined against conformity, authority, organized sports etc. Being against formal education would line up well into that philosophy...
Absolutely. The whole "DIY/I don't need you" thought process fits into that nicely as well. Whether that's right or wrong is up for debate, but it is definitely present in my opinion.
Have you noticed any changes in this attitude over the years?
There were always exceptions to this attitude but at least up until recently the overwhelming "skate or die" mentality left no room to showcase them. For a while, skateboarding culture was like "...to hell with everything - skateboarding rules and is all that you need". It is so easy to get swept away into that lifestyle. I certainly did. After graduating from high school I moved to San Francisco so that I could skate as much as possible. I never had any delusional thoughts about becoming a pro, but I was definitely thinking about having skateboarding become a career option in other ways. My dad called me up one day and let me know that my college fund would only be made available to me for the purposes of studying. I would not be sent that money if I would stay in San Francisco skateboarding.
So you decided to take your dad up on his offer and enrol in university?
It was a hard decision for me. I had some conversations with my friends at the time about it and they were like "Are you stupid? Fly home and take advantage of that college fund!" These friends, as many skaters are to this day, were not white middle class privileged people like myself. They didn't have access to any college fund or anything like that so their no nonsense advice to my dilemma put things into perspective. There's no question that post secondary education is a privilege that shouldn't be squandered. It's not fair to say that all skaters think school is a waste of time. Some are simply not able to afford it.
If a skater is lacking the resources or the influence from friends or family - it’s easy for their lives to become 100% skateboarding and nothing else. Skateboarding is almost too much fun and you can do it all day long. It's tempting to put everything on the back burner and just skate, drink beers, and hang out 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Why would a skater want to do anything other than that?
This is especially true for younger skaters, but I think it's changing for the better. Back in the day, a lot of dumb qualities such as excessive drinking or clowning on anyone seeming smart was an accepted part of skateboarding culture. To be smart was to be uncool. It was expected to keep conversations shallow, otherwise you were a nerd. I feel like this is changing because not only are there more well rounded amazing skaters with various interests out there now, but also, their stories are being told more than ever before. This is showing us that you can be a skater and pursue other interests, be it school or anything else. Skateboarding does not have to be all consuming. The "Skate or Die" era is hopefully coming to an end.
Suciu being selected as SOTY this year is a perfect example of that...
Yep. No doubt. Mark Suciu is an absolutely incredible skater which nobody can deny. He's also a well educated, well read, well spoken non party bro. My friends and I were recently chuckling while discussing what his SOTY party would be like. It would more likely involve a Napa wine tour than beer kegs; and that is so good...to start seeing a variety of skaters with a variety of interests is what we need. Like I said earlier, there were always instances of this - of more well rounded skaters or even of skateboarding being shown in a different light - there just wasn't always a whole lot of it.
It's hard to compete with wicked skate content. An article about a skater working on some project or their education will be treated as secondary to a rad skate photo or clip, and to some extent, that’s fair! Skateboarding is a physical activity after all, so clips and photos are always rad. It is cool though, to see an appetite for more variety growing. Hence the popularity of media outlets like Jenkem, Vent City Podcast or even the Pushing Boarders conference.
Along with this maturity comes an acknowledgement of our communal ignorance, for at least a big portion of skaters. We need to realize that for so long, we have acted (and still do in large part) as a backwards, intolerant, boys club.. We’re only beginning to see the signs of this going away, but it is still cool to see. That's a benefit from maturity and education. I'm obviously biased due to my professional position, but I think that public education plays such a key role in people's attitudes, acceptance and understanding. It seems to be more important now than ever before for us to move forward.
Getting education to seem fun cannot always be easy, especially for elementary school kids. What approaches in your experience have worked out?
Realizing that the main issue that kids have with formal education lies in the "formal" part. Education can mean so many things. There's nothing wrong with taking a more classic approach to education - university etc. but it also doesn't have to be so linear. Do education like a skater! If something isn't working out, try not to get bummed out! Try a different approach until something sticks. This is easier said than done for sure, but I try to stress that nobody hates education. You may dislike an educational approach or two but you should never write off education as a whole. Just keep pushing yourself and remember that you don't have to quit skating. There's plenty of time for both education and skateboarding.
Well put Robert, thanks for the insight!
Anytime! It was my pleasure.