Skating Out Classroom Stress As A 'Derby Dame'

Dec 16, 2014
Originally published on December 17, 2014 1:46 pm

The NPR Ed team is discovering what teachers do when they're not teaching. Pilot? Artist? Bartender? Explore our Secret Lives of Teachers series.

Every fall, on the first day of school, Nina Park greets her new honors English class with a game called "two truths and a lie." Her students, 10th-graders at TechBoston Academy in Dorchester, Mass. have to guess which is which.

"I tell them, 'Reading is my favorite thing to do, I'm Instagram famous, and I play roller derby,' " she says. "And every year, they get it wrong."

It'd be hard to blame them for failing her test.

The mild-mannered Ms. Park shows a totally different side after dismissal, when she's geared up in helmet, knee pads, elbow pads and retro-looking roller skates and jostling, bumping and rolling around a makeshift derby track in an old warehouse.

Known as Elle L. Cool Jam, she's part of the Cosmonaughties, a women's roller derby team in Boston.

She's the team's jammer — the position that tries to score by forcing and finessing her way past a scrum of blockers, most of whom are way bigger than Park's 5-foot-2, 120-pound frame.

"It's really scary," she says as she speeds off into a knot of players down the track. Players shove, twist and bounce off one another, often ending up on the cement floor.

Once, Park was literally knocked unconscious and rushed to the hospital. But she's kept coming back, ever since a friend first brought her to watch a game more than four years ago.

"I was like instantly, 'I need to be part of this,' " Park recalls.

It was both a challenge and a change; instead of teaching, she was the one learning again. And her learning curve was a steep one; she didn't even know how to skate. "I mean it's exciting, it's exhilarating," Park says.

And it's liberating.

Park says derby is a great way to release all the stress and frustration from teaching at her inner-city Boston public school.

"You know, sometimes the hip check is for something else," Park says, laughing. "You always do it legally, but sometimes it just feels good to let it out."

"We're pretty tough," she adds. "We're thoughtful and ladylike, but when comes down to it, we're ready to rumble."

Many of the players make that clear with their derby names: Brutal Lithium, Hard Core, License to Kari. And like Park, all these Boston Derby Dames — the name of the league — are acting out a kind of double life.

By day, Brutal Lithium is a Ph.D. student in chemistry, Hard Core works for the registry of motor vehicles, and License to Kari is a waitress.

Some wear tutus over their tattoos; others are bedazzled and metallic. But this is real competition, not staged brawls. It's a complex sport, with serious athletes playing both offense and defense at the same time — which Park says feels a lot like what she does in the classroom.

"My students have lot of kind of tender spots, so I have to push them to work harder, but if you push too hard they push back," Park says. "So you have to have the right amount of push and support at the same time."

Back at school, Park pivots constantly between praising her students and pressing them to do more. "Awesome job," she says to one. "You're breaking my heart," she chides another who has not finished an assignment on time.

Tenth-grader Malachi Freeman calls Park tough, but not intimidating — and definitely not someone you'd peg for a roller derby queen. "That blew my mind," Freeman says. "I didn't know teachers had an afterlife like that."

But you'd be wrong to think this was a total Jekyll and Hyde kind of thing. Even when she's skating, you can definitely see the Ms. Park in the Elle L. Cool Jam.

Park gets whacked with a block and immediately calls out, "Nice! You guys got me so good!" A moment later, the breath knocked out of her again, she exclaims, "You were amazing!"

"She will get hit so hard and she just smiles, and [says], 'You did such a great job!' " says teammate Shayna Nestor. "She congratulates the other team for hitting her well!" adds another teammate, who goes by Tiny Dancer.

Toward the end of her practice, as Park turns back to the track, I catch a glimmer of a silver necklace she's wearing with a name on it. But it's not Nina or Elle L. Cool Jam. I'm confused, I say.

"It's actually my Instagram handle: @NinaNailedIt," she explains. "I also do nail art!"

Yup – that's the other, other life of this English teacher.

Remember her "two truths and a lie" game? Her story about being an Instagram star is true: Park has more than 18,000 followers. And just to prove it, she flashes her floral-painted fingernails popping out of her black roller derby wrist guards.


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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

As part of our series on the secret lives of teachers, we're going to meet a teacher whose secret is often hard for her students to believe. It involves elbow and knee pads and a helmet. NPR's Tovia Smith has more on how this high school English teacher in Boston likes to roll outside of the classroom.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Every fall on the first day of school, Nina Park starts class with a game called two truths and a lie. Her students have to guess which is which.

NINA PARK: So I tell my students reading is my favorite thing to do, that I am sort of Instagram famous and that I play roller derby.

SMITH: And every year her students get it wrong. All geared up in a helmet, kneepads, elbow pads and retro looking roller skates...

PARK: Oh, good Lord.

SMITH: ...Park jostles, bumps and rolls around a makeshift track in an old warehouse.

PARK: Jesus, Molly.

SMITH: Elle L. Cool Jam, she is called.

PARK: (Laughter).

SMITH: Her team's jammer, who tries to score by forcing and finessing her way past a scrum of blockers, most way bigger than her 5'2'', 120-pound frame.

PARK: This is so scary.

SMITH: Once she was literally knocked unconscious, but she keeps coming back. It's exhilarating, she says, and liberating, especially after a stressful day teaching at her inner-city Boston school.

PARK: Oh my God, yes. Yes, absolutely - I mean, you know, sometimes it just feels good to get it out.

Oh, Jesus.

You know, you always do it legally, but sometimes that hip check was for something else.

Oh my god.

We're pretty tough. So we're, you know, thoughtful and ladylike but, you know, when it comes down to it, we're ready to rumble.

BRUTAL LITHIUM: I'm Brutal Lithium, I'm studying for a PhD in chemistry.

LICENSE TO KARI: I am License to Kari. I'm a waitress at a cafe in Salem.

SMITH: You kind of get the idea that all these Boston Derby Dames, as the league is called, are acting out a kind of double life.

HARD CORE: I'm Hard Core and I work for the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

PARK: Oh. Nice job, Hard Core.

SMITH: On Park's team, the Cosmo-nauties, some wear tutus over their tattoos while others are bedazzled and metallic. But this is not your grandmother's roller derby with totally staged brawls. It's a real and complex sport with serious athletes playing both offense and defense at the same time, which Park says feels a lot like what she does in class.

PARK: My students have a lot of kind of tender spots. So I have to push them to work harder and be the best that they can be. But if you push too hard, they push back. So you have to have the right amount of push and support at the same time.

Can you guys also take out your notebooks, please?

SMITH: Back at school, in her honor's English class...

PARK: Good. Proud of you.

SMITH: ...Elle L. Cool Jam lapses back into the mild-mannered Ms. Park.

PARK: Have you used your transitions?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Four.

PARK: Four? That's awesome. Good.

SMITH: 10th grader Malachi Freeman has a hard time seeing Ms. Park as Elle L. Cool Jam.

MALACHI FREEMAN: That was the thing that blew my mind when she told me. (Laughter) I didn't really know teachers had an afterlife like that.

PARK: Nice. Yes.

SMITH: But you'd be wrong to think this was a total Jeckyll-Hyde kind of thing.

PARK: Good job. You got me with this and your hip, and it was amazing.

SMITH: Back on the track, you can definitely see the Ms. Park in the Elle L. Cool Jam.

PARK: Nice, Molly. You guys got me so good right here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: She will get hit so hard and she just smiles. It's like - you did such a good job.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah, she congratulates the other team on hitting her well.

(LAUGHTER)

PARK: Nice. You were amazing.

SMITH: Her teammates love her for it. When Park comes off the track, she spins around, and I catch a glimmer of a silver necklace she's wearing with a name on it that says - wait, it's not Nina or Elle L. Cool Jam.

PARK: It's actually my Instagram handle. It's Ninanailedit. I also do nail art.

SMITH: Yep. That's the other other side of this English teacher.

PARK: I'm serious. I actually have 18,000 followers on Instagram.

SMITH: With Ninanailedit, aka Nina Park, aka Elle L. Cool Jam, I'm Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.