The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

The Polygon

The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

The Polygon

The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

The Polygon

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How Chuck Nwoke Went from Professional Skateboarding to Teaching English

Teachers at Poly use a variety of methods to travel around the city: the train, a car, a bike, walking. But one teacher uses a perhaps more unusual mode of transport: a skateboard.


Before he was grading eighth-grade English papers, Chuck Nwoke was a high-flying, trick-landing, rail-grinding sponsored skateboarder. 

Nwoke sat back with a smile, recalling the travel, the thrill, and even the slams that came with being a professional skateboarder in high school.

“I never thought I would be an English teacher. I was a solid C student in high school,” Nwoke said, clearly still surprised he is now a teacher. “Everything was about skateboarding.”

Nwoke started skateboarding in the 1980s: a time he referred to as a “skateboarding renaissance.” He remembered the movie “Thrashin’,” which tells the story of two rival skateboarding gangs battling it out for a girl, serving as an inspiration for him to start skateboarding.

“From that moment on it was every day, every moment,” he said. “I was even practicing in the house.”

As a skateboarder, Nwoke’s childhood was far from normal. Nwoke, originally from Texas, would frequently travel to participate in national competitions with other skateboarders, which mostly took place in California, the skateboarding hub at the time.

“I repeated my senior year of high school because I missed like 40 days for traveling,” he said.

Nwoke also struggled with his racial identity, as one of the only African-American professional skateboarders in the 1980s. Nwoke is thrilled to see that in the modern era of skateboarding, racial, sexual, and even gender boundaries have been shattered.

Despite these struggles, he still loved the rush and community that skateboarding brought him. 

“I was spending vacations in California in my sponsor’s house with a bunch of other skaters,” Nwoke said, smiling at the thought. “It was the best time of my life.”

Old clips from “Debbie Does Blockhead,” a 1992 skateboarding mixtape, show Nwoke dressed in baggy clothes and baseball caps doing “360-Kickflips,” “Rail-grinds,” “Shuv-its,” and other tricks, as posted on Facebook. 

Although his success as a skateboarder took him far, his mother would never let the importance of academics escape him. 

“[I’d tell her,] ‘Mom, I got first in this contest!’ ‘What about school? [She’d say.] ‘Mom, they want to turn me pro.’ ‘What about school?’”

So Nwoke, unlike many other skateboarders who were not pursuing levels of education higher than high school, enrolled in college at the University of Houston. While there, in his early 20s, he sustained an injury that kept him off his skateboard for a few months. At first, this time off caused Nwoke stress. “I was lost. I didn’t know what I was good at,” he said. But it ultimately gave way to an unexpected new obsession: English Literature. 

“I was flying through books. I became obsessed.”

Nwoke soon began writing. His innate talent was quickly recognized by his professors, who encouraged him to keep writing. He started pursuing English studies, ultimately graduating with a Humanities degree focused on cultural criticism. 

At 23, Nwoke officially stopped skateboarding professionally, looking to fully pursue writing.

Out of college, Nwoke moved to New York after one of his old teachers, proud of the writer Nwoke had become, set him up with a job at “The Village Voice” newspaper. At the newspaper, Nwoke focused on music reviews. However, after a few years as a journalist, Nwoke decided it wasn’t for him, and began focusing on his solo writing and teaching at private schools.

Now, as a 49-year-old English teacher in his second year at Poly, Nwoke has not stopped skateboarding. 

“I’ll skate to get to the grocery store, I’ll skate to pick up stuff, I’ll skate to a park far away, I’ll skate home,” he said.

Although he skates solely for transportation now, he misses the old days. “I do get seduced by the idea of a perfect handrail or ledge when I see one, but I don’t mess around.” 

Nwoke now has to find other ways to fulfill his adrenaline addiction. One of his remedies is surfing at Rockaway Beach, often making time to go before school.

“I’ll get out there at 6:00, be out of the water by like 7:30, then be here,” he said. “Hurricane Lee was nice to me. It was fun, swell,” he joked.

Nwoke also still keeps up to date with all the skateboarding news. 

“Surfing and skateboarding are the only reasons I’m on Instagram.”

He loves seeing his childhood skateboarding friends as successful adults now, who have pursued careers ranging from owning skateboarding companies to working on ESPN.

Nwoke even sees his skateboarding past affecting the way he teaches.

“Skateboarding is all about creativity. So with my students, I’m all about trusting your ideas and your thoughts,” he said. “I want people to be as creative as possible.”

Along with teaching, skating, and surfing, Nwoke still finds time to write. His stories, which focus on struggles with race and identity, have been featured in many publications, including “The Huffington Post” and “London Magazine,” as a winner of the Short Story Prize. He is currently writing a novella about a young skateboarder’s rise to fame, based on his own journey.

Though it seems unlikely he’ll go back to competitive skateboarding now, he’ll never forget what it was like.

“I’m a skater for life, that’s for sure,” he remarked. 

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