Skatable Memories

By Lucius Von Joo


When I was student teaching I would sometimes skateboard to the school from the train station. I loved this functional way of getting around. I would skate down to the M train, grab the Bay Guardian from the free paper box and do the crossword on my way to the 19th street stop with my deck underfoot. Doing this puzzle and thinking about skateboarding were simple deep moments of daily play. The hills of San Francisco were a free amusement park ride between work and school. I looked forward to the need to get somewhere.  

One day when I arrived at Jose Ortega Elementary I went up to the main office to sign in, read, and initial the daily notes admin printed out. Being included in this  organized ritual as an adult made me feel included into the world of teachers I longed to be a part of.  When I was at the front desk the principal walked by and spotted the skateboard leaning against my leg. I can’t remember the comment Ms. Koch led with, but it ended with me having to hand over my skateboard to store in her office until the end of the day. I had entered the building feeling I was just old enough to teach, but this moment made me feel like a kid trying to get away with something. This familiar feeling of surveillance for doing something I deeply enjoyed put me in an awkward place. While I was a green to teaching I had been skateboarding for over a decade. An act that made all the streets, curbs and sidewalks a place of possibility. 

I was humiliated. After that, I started to come in early and go through the back door of the kindergarten classroom where I was doing my student teaching. I didn’t want to give up skating, but I also didn’t want to turn in my board in every day. I would hide my skateboard under my jacket and stash it in the back of the room until the end of the day. Hiding it felt silly, but it was better than making a show of turning it in every morning as if I was a danger to the school. I wasn’t being rebellious, I just didn’t want to feel the shame. 


One morning the teacher I was assisting came in early and saw me holding my board. I froze. I deeply respected Mr. Cid and was worried I had let him down like I had Ms. Koch. I thought I had already ruined any chance of teaching at this school in the future from the belittling treatment I experienced from Ms. Koch. But I still didn’t want to disappoint a teacher who had taught me so much. Mr. Cid turned toward me and said, “You ride that thing! At break today you are going to skateboard for all the kids. They are all going to love it! We’ll all come out and you are going to ride it for us.” It seems stupid, but I needed this affirmation and lesson in my teacher training. I needed to be able to bring what I cared about to the classroom, not be shamed for it. I admired Mr. Cid, for how he brought his whole self to the classroom, he would sing and dance with the kids. A talent I definitely didn’t have the knack for and stumbled in and out of all too often. But I didn’t realize that this flat deck and wheels was a part of what I cared about. The early aughts was a strange era for skateboarding. The sport was definitely recognized, but came with judgment. I always loved skating but hated being judged by people like Ms. Koch. 

I made it down the hill that day behind room 104 with a simple powerslide and cheers from kids and Mr. Cid. My minor trick would have definitely labeled me a poser with other skaters but that moment was perfect. I could be myself in front of kids that I deeply respected. I had no idea that skateboarding was a part of my identity but doing this simple act that I had been doing more than half my left felt important. Three generations in one room enjoying the simplicity and charm of a wood plank skimming an inch and a half over the concrete.  


I grew up in the era of backyard and street skating. This could be considered the second iteration of the sport, following a remission from the flatground performative 1970s. This grassroots rebirth invited new kids like me into the sport. Kids who didn’t have the money or support to join an organized team could skate in discarded pools and empty parking lots. I didn’t have the money or means to surf as it was generational or capitalized, but skateboarding was still on the edge of being affordable. I got my first popsicle board with borrowed money at skateworks. I had trucks, wheels, and hardware handed down from my brother and his friends. This set up opened up many new places of play. 

For example when I was twelve years old I would visit the Staples office supply store which had been built on a field we used to love riding bikes in. It was heartbreaking when the natural dirt hills were scraped up and replaced with tar. However, better skaters than me instantly imagined the possibilities. They saw new obstacles we could spend hours on like the six-foot “Staple’s Gap” or the “Jenny Craig 5-stair” or the “Three Story” or “Four Story” parking garage. All these new mundane monstrosities that were taking over our town took on an underground purpose. Four wheels, two metal trucks and a plank of wood stole back these paved deserts.  

We would also skate at familiar places, schools were one of our favorites. It enabled us to build new memories in the off hours of places that treated many of us as worthless. Feeling the flow of sliding across aluminum benches we were forced to sit out recess on or dropping-in on the outdoor concrete hallways we had to walk in single file. We were able to form our own boundaries of risk. However these places were always watched and any session was often short lived. Finding a place to skate without police being called was rare in my area. The irony of kids being penalized for practicing a sport runs deep. We were simply skating in abandoned or unused areas, but for many this act of play was a threat or annoyance. Most of my friends received tickets for trespassing in a parking lot. Which simply meant they were skateboarding in public because they didn’t have the means to build a ramp. The thought of standing in the middle of an empty slab of concrete and being labeled a menace is painful to reflect on. 


My generation of skateboarding was a community of creative fools. Each speculating without tutorial or demonstration. This unimaginable play is not without consequences. We had VHS and magazines which helped romanticize the lifestyle but often stopped at exposure. For technique you often pulled from whoever lived closest to you, which made the community limited but tight. 

The Norcal skate community that I came up in was territorial. The street fraction of skateboarding had spawned from surfing and brought with it the ingroup mentality that was reserved to a perfect surf spot. To be honest it wasn’t until my brother’s friend got a job at Bill’s Wheels that I felt comfortable in a skateshop. I am not sure if this was the case for all kids. I don’t think the owner Bill skated, but my friend would hook us up with misprinted skateboard decks. This same friend was the best at filming other skaters, which last I heard he was full tilt into the Hollywood film scene. Skating opened doors to try new ways of understanding the world. 

There was so much to learn about skate culture, even if it was counter to the mainstream there were an equal amount of rules. There were many social practices that still linger today. Never hold your board at a skatepark unless you were there to skate. While it’s become a running gag, knowing a kickflip was serious. You had to know what you were doing or you shouldn’t be doing it. You would often see a beginner scratching their deck up to feign evidence of the tricks they pulled. I remember regrettably doing this to the first discount deck I mentioned purchasing with borrowed funds, scraping off the graphic of a weiner dog on a bright yellow background.  


Today there are sanctioned parks where hatchling skaters can learn to fall safely, or take risks without a passing car running over and snapping a deck. While these places have mainstreamed and softened the edges of a needed counter culture the act of play is still ever present. Each trick you try you are going to fail an uncountable amount of times. This built in failure to play, helps skaters accept failure as a part of learning. As the sport grows I do wonder how access has changed.

Skateboarding also had its second rise through video games that leveled the physical learning curve. The risks and ability could be digitally mediated. The imagined part of making any place a playable space was prominent in the game. However the digital practice has its obvious limitations, of in person community and understanding personal physical limits.  


Today skateboarding has mainstream support, whether that be through video game accessibility or the commodification of skills and personalities. There is no doubt the sport has reached a benchmark in joining the Olympics. This milestone turns the dials of access, exposure, and joy of play connected to the sport. I am pleased to see the sport is thriving and there is not only one way of doing the sport anymore. So I wonder what the current sport is that is in the underground backlots of play. 

I also hope that the current generation of skaters does not waste so much time looking out for who may end the play. For me, even when I skate with my own kids in a parking lot, I am constantly looking over my shoulder. This tension of learning to enjoy something the world looks down on was exhausting. Play being labeled as dangerous for the world is something I have spent my life pushing back against. I am not sure if I would have done this, if I had the means and community to end up on a local soccer field instead of an abandoned parking lot.