The hats were the first giveaway that something was different about this high-school class. Twelve of the students were wearing them, in bold defiance of that archaic hats-off-in-school rule. Slouched into chairs, jeans bunched into skate shoes, headphones hanging out of ears, the students would have looked like the regular cast of any high school detention hall if it weren’t for how damn happy they were to be there.
This was especially true as three guys and one girl in their late teens gathered around a table for their assignment: to make a skateboard. It’s one of the regular projects at Oasis Skateboard Factory, a Toronto District School Board alternative high school program aimed at disengaged students from grades 9 to 11.
The students talked in short bursts, one on top of one another, explaining the skateboard-building process: the kind of wood you use, the kind of glue, how to layer the veneers, the shape of the mould…. It was a chaotic choreography of teenage fast-talking, where none of them seemed to realize that they kept cutting each other off or that, at the root of it, they were really talking about art, design, construction, and physics, all at once. Start to finish it took them about three minutes and there it was—a brand new skateboard deck, ready to be sanded and painted. Their faces glowed with unmistakable pride.
OSF, which operates out of Room #3 at Scadding Court Community Centre at Bathurst and Dundas, is like a one-room schoolhouse for misfits run by a guy who looks as if he’s the head of a motorcycle gang. The students have dropped out of high school, or have become disengaged, or have just struggled to find a way to connect with the traditional curriculum. “It’s the kind of kid who draws graffiti in the margins,” OSF founder and teacher Craig Morrison explained. “And then they come here and I look at their drawing and I’m like, ‘That’s friggin’ cool.’ And the kid’s like, ‘What the hell? My teacher told me not to do that.’”
Morrison started the program four years ago and has been teaching within TDSB’s alternative school system for 15 years. His goal is to engage and empower these students by talking about skateboarding and teaching them about running a business, developing and designing a brand, and promoting and selling a product. He pulls in coursework from about 22 different subjects but presents it in a way that the kids connect with. Rather than just working on conceptual projects that will sit in a cabinet, their work goes out into the world almost as soon as it’s produced. Not only do they earn credits, they can earn an honorarium on work that sells (and it does).
They’ve run pop-up shops at Toronto’s Baitshop and in New York City. They’re currently developing designs to go on sustainable skateboards produced by Bamboo Skateboards out of California. Each student is also working on designing and producing a mini-board in collaboration with a local artist—a joint venture between the school and Canadian custom skateboard company Roarockit. Those will be displayed and auctioned off at a show at the Gladstone Hotel on April 19.
Out in the hallway, a girl sat alone, hunched over her deck, a hoodie pulled up over her hat. She was picking away at the green painter’s tape she’d used to shape the stencil for the final part of her deck’s artwork. Morrison wandered up and asked if she just needed some quiet space for a bit.
She sat up, revealing her deck where a swath of spray-painted rainbow barf shot out of a white tiger head. “No, I was getting too many comments in there.”
“Too many what?” he replied. “That looks awesome.”
“Too many comments. Everybody kept standing around me talking about how great it was.”