Past the playground, where children are using shovels to scoop mulch into buckets, a school bus rounds a corner.
It glides through the residential Chilliwack neighbourhood, past lines of homes, and past construction workers banging heavy tools at the site of a new housing development.
The bus parks on a side street, and students spill out the folding front door. One by one, the boards hit the pavement. The first few kids slide straight into the Webster Landing skatepark, gliding back and forth through the ramps like a pendulum on a grandfather clock.
The whirring sound of wheels on concrete fills the park.
At Kwiyeqel secondary school, this is what gym class looks like.
Bryce Orr, dressed in a salmon T-shirt, is the last to step off the bus. The teacher of the class, he wears a lime green helmet and a pair of vans sneakers. He walks with his skateboard under his armpit—his luscious brown hair flows out the back of his helmet.
“We found a pocket of nice weather,” he says, pointing to the overcast sky.
Kwiyeqel secondary piloted the skateboarding program as a physical education elective last year. By popular demand, the school re-launched the elective this spring.
“The kids were really stoked on it.”
The idea was born out of COVID-19 restrictions and a lack of gym access at the school. While Kwiyeqel does have a weight room, the majority of gym class is taught at the Chilliwack YMCA.
But amid the chaos of that first pandemic winter, the school couldn’t conduct classes at the YMCA and was forced to look for alternative physical education options.
It was then that a former student pitched the skateboard class idea to Orr. He agreed wholeheartedly.
“I was like, ‘We should have a skateboard class!’” Orr said.
Orr, who grew up skateboarding in the Chilliwack area, convinced the school’s administration to buy skateboards for the kids and start the program.
Sean Wicker, Kwiyeqel’s principal, was struck by Orr’s passion for the class—who call themselves the Kickflips. He was particularly intrigued by how Orr described the physicality of skateboarding.
“If you’re going to be a good skateboarder, you have to be strong in different areas,” he said. “You need to have good core strength, you have to have good balance, push that board and do a lot of different things.”
As an alternate school, with non-traditional teaching methods, Wicker admits that some students may struggle with attendance come the end of the school year. Skateboarding, though, provides a new reason to come to school and Wicker has noticed a rise in attendance—especially in the spring term when the skateboard class runs.
“The group that loves to skateboard, on a nice day like today, you’d see them rolling in the morning, ready to go,” Wicker said.
Combating ‘skate culture’
When Orr was a kid, skateboarding was stigmatized.
Students weren’t allowed to bring their skateboards on the bus and the kids weren’t thought of as athletes.
“I’ve felt a lot of that growing up in skateboarding and just thought that was so wrong,” Orr said.
The sport roots itself in creativity and freedom. You can freestyle on rails, stairs, ramps, and half-pipes. You can ride for as long as you like. You can find a piece of cardboard, place it over top of a set of stairs and ride down.
Unlike mainstream sports like football or hockey, with penalties for infractions and time limits on games, there are no rules in skateboarding. It’s for those reasons that skateboarders have historically been labelled “rebels” or “social deviants.”
Safety risks, accessibility, and ‘skate culture’ were all factors that Wicker considered before the program was launched.
But skateboarding is not as anti-establishment as it once was.
Skateboarding is now an Olympic sport.
“If you look at skateboarding at the Olympics, it’s mandatory when they’re riding ramps that they wear helmets,” Wicker said. “These guys take safety seriously and they want to take care of their body.”
On rainy days when the class can’t ride outside, Orr shows his class videos that call into question the negative stereotypes of skateboarding.
When he began as a teacher, Orr connected with students by bringing his own board to school to show his kids. He believes his class reduces the previous negative perception of skateboarding through fostering—not tearing down—students’ love of skating.
“You let the kids bring their tubas to school for jazz band, well we should let them bring their skateboards in for skate class,” he said.
Grading the skating
Orr teaches the basics of skateboarding like how to ride a board and do an ollie, a trick where riders jump in the air with their board. But some students come into the class already knowing how to ride, while others may need more guidance.
So, Orr prefers to teach his class with a one-on-one approach.
“On any given day in skate class, I’m skating with them, I’ve got my board every day, and we’ll try to get to the skate park and I’m just cruising around checking in with kids,” he said.
The way Orr grades his class is simple: as long as they are eager to learn and try new skills, they’ll receive the marks.
“I know where all my students are at with their skateboarding, and I’m just trying to keep them interested and give them new skills,” he said.
Currently, a class of roughly 12 students meets everyday during the afternoon of the spring term. They travel to nearby skateparks like Webster Landing, Chilliwack Landing, and Rosedale to practice. They have also been promised old ramps from the City of Chilliwack for a new skate area to be built at Kwiyeqel.
There isn’t a timeline on when the ramps will be installed, but Orr says students are excited about the possibility of their own skate park.
“The plan is to have a full-sized halfpipe in a covered area. We’ll try to enclose it a little more, waterproof it, so we’ll have a covered dry area to skateboard.”
Years ago, in his youth, Orr could only dream that he would receive marks for skateboarding.
Skateboarding takes hours and hours of practice (and falls on the concrete) to master. Orr hopes to continue the class for the foreseeable future—inspiring the next generation of boarders, one kickflip at a time.
“These kids have grit.”