Elijah White was 3 years old when he decided he wanted to be a skateboarder. His parents bought him a discount-store board, thinking this might satisfy him; for a while, it did. Then, last spring, Steve White and his wife, Wendy Sause, were driving past Asheville’s Food Lion Skate Park “on a whim” when they saw Elijah’s future stretching out before them, all vert, lips and grinding rails.
Now 5, Elijah is slightly bigger than a peanut. His kneepads cover his whole legs and his elbow pads swaddle his arms. When he skates, he wears Spider-Man sunglasses to cut down the glare. And though he’s just now learning to read, he already rides a skateboard better than most of us ever will.
“Honestly, it’s hard not to push him,” says his instructor, Kevin Shelton. “I watch him ride and think, ‘This kid’s gonna blow Tony Hawk away someday.’”
That White has come so far so fast owes much to Shelton and his teaching style. “Kevin’s an amazing teacher, especially with the little kids,” says Steve White. “Elijah just took to him instantly.
Shelton, 43, has been skateboarding since the mid-‘70s. His talent was sufficient to take him on the road, and for a while in the 1990s, he skated pro, competing across the United States. Shelton won often enough and garnered enough endorsements to pay his way, but Western North Carolina has always been home, so he eventually returned. Today, Shelton divides his time between Asheville and Vail, Colo., where he teaches snowboarding in the winter.
Sports like skiing and snowboarding have long had a learning code and a system of instruction, as well as teaching associations and educational materials. But skateboarding has always been an individualist’s sport. Skaters learn by doing, taking their knocks along the way.
Shelton offers an alternative. During one-hour lessons, he teaches the fundamentals of movement, leading students from simply staying on the board to learning how to use their body weight to build momentum, to drop in and to “carve” the park’s concrete “bowls.” His youngest student to date was 4; his oldest, 64. He reckons he’s had 100 paying students since the park was built.
“The hardest part is figuring out how each person learns,” says Shelton. “I’ve seen young people who were very timid and old people who should have been timid but weren’t. You’ve got to analyze where a person’s at and not get out too far ahead of them. There are the people who don’t exactly have the abilities, who might be better off doing something else. But I never pull away from anyone. Everyone can learn something—it just might take awhile.”
Each week since June, Elijah has taken two hours of lessons from Shelton, skating through the heat of summer and into the first blessed cool of fall. He can “roll in” at the park’s smallest bowl, “drop in” on the “street course” and carve. He moves with the grace and surety of someone years older. And just as importantly, he’s learned how to abide by the park’s rules, both official and unwritten.
“There’s a culture at the park,” says Steve White. “It’s a pretty respectful culture; there’s an etiquette that goes with it, partly out of necessity. You can’t get out there and go crazy, because you’ll hurt yourself—or someone else. Elijah’s learning that; he’s learning to pay attention and to wait his turn, disciplines that will carry through to the rest of his life.”
Shelton agrees. “It’s not only about learning to ride the park as a skater. It’s also about being part of a community of skaters.”
Shelton was a prime mover in getting the park built, and he does his best to ensure that it remains a safe, civil place. He’s there nearly every day, acting as mentor, role model and dispenser of technique to the dozen or so skaters using the park on any given afternoon. And when the situation calls for it, Shelton’s also an peace maker. “I try to make sure this park isn’t a ruthless place,” he says.
Shelton has a Harpo Marx mop of sandy hair and the low-centered build of the best skateboarders. His color of choice is black: black T-shirt, black shorts, black tube socks, black pads and a black helmet with little spikes jutting from its crown. A black tattoo on his forearm says, “THE FILTH AND THE FURY.” All of this could be a little intimidating, but Shelton’s laid-back manner puts students’ fears to rest.
And fear, it seems, is not an issue when it comes to young Elijah. “He’s got attitude,” says Shelton. “He’s somehow figured it out in his little subconscious that ‘Kevin Shelton is my best pal, my skate buddy numero uno.’ He’s kind of a little version of me in a sense. For him, it’s all about ‘This is what I want to do.’”
While Elijah takes his lesson, his dad looks on from a picnic table at the skate park. Elijah’s twin sister, Bronwyn, is perched next to her father, marking patterns on pieces of construction paper.
Meanwhile, Elijah and Shelton watch an experienced skater roll in, carve a high line across the park’s small bowl, then tuck into a lowered stance, like a surfer shooting the tube.
“All right, Eli,” says Shelton. “It’s time for Carving 101. We’re surfin’ it, buddy.” He shows the way, and a few minutes later Elijah’s trying it for himself.
Shelton smiles. “When I was 5, I would’ve been petrified to go to a skate park,” he says. “I would have been wrapped around my dad’s legs. But Eli just rolled right on up and rolled right on in. He’s my prize student this year.”
The ABCs of skating
Kevin Shelton teaches both beginning and experienced boarders at the Food Lion Skate Park in Asheville (corner of Flint and Cherry streets; 225-7184). Lessons cost $25 per hour. Prospective students should have their own skateboard; pads and helmets are available for rent at the park. To learn more, call Shelton at 645-1086.