Penhale's life a menagerie of activityBy JEFF HELMINIAKPeninsula Clarion Remember that old stereotype of high school where the nerds sit in one corner, the artsy-fartsy types sit in another, and the jocks earn the glory out on the football field?
That doesn't work at Nikiski High School, and it certainly doesn't work with senior Nigel Penhale.
"When you think about it, there's a bunch of different cultures at a high school, whether it's football players or skaters," Penhale said. "I like to get involved in as many things as possible.
"That's what's neat about this school. Everybody's involved in a lot of different things, so there are no separate groups. I'm a football player, but I can't call people nerds because I am a nerd."
Indeed, Penhale's involved in so many things his options for making fun of others are severely limited.
Make fun of the jocks? Penhale's tried a little bit of everything at Nikiski, including football, wrestling, hockey, soccer and track.
What about the geeks? Penhale earns mostly A's, except for the high B's he gets in math classes. In the third grade, Penhale became hooked on reading when he sat down and read J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" in one night. He's also heavily involved in student government.
How about a few jokes about the artsy types? Penhale loves art, and thinks he may want to make a career out of designing ads. One of the schools he's thinking about attending is the Rhode Island Institute of Design, which he calls "the Harvard of art schools."
But the debaters are always good for a few barbs, right? Sorry. Penhale has been on the Drama, Debate and Forensics team since he was a freshman. Last year, he took fourth place at state in reader's theater in helping Nikiski to its first state championship.
Why not look down on the aggressive skaters, break dancers and deejays, then? Because Penhale considers himself part of all those cultures, too.
"I guess he's good in everything," said Nigel's mother, Eve Penhale.
Nigel was born in the Philippines, and moved to Alaska when he was 3 years old with Eve and his father, Roy.
Eve said when Nigel was 2 years old, he memorized all the presidents of the United States. She also recently watched a tape of Nigel singing and dancing songs when he was just over a year old.
That ability to perform would be manifested in Nigel's skill in drama, debate and forensics.
"I was in (Joe Rizzo's) drama, debate and forensics class as a freshman," Penhale said. "The next thing I knew, I was in Anchorage competing."
Rizzo, who teaches drama, debate and English at Nikiski, said Penhale's talent stuck out like a sore thumb.
"Nigel is probably one of the best kids I've seen for thinking on his feet," Rizzo said. "That was pretty obvious in English classes in the public speaking unit.
"You'd give Nigel any topic, and he'd speak on it as long as you wanted him to."
As a freshman, Penhale was one of six people on Nikiski's first drama, debate and forensics team. By Penhale's junior year, 27 kids were on the team that took the state title.
"I think Nigel's going to go on and do some great things," Rizzo said. "I think what he's learned in drama, debate and forensics, combined with his talents, is going to have a great deal to do with his success in the future.
"It's an unbeatable combination."
Dottie Sanders, an art and language arts teacher at Nikiski, also thinks Penhale is stamped for success.
Sanders has been helping Penhale refine his portfolio in an attempt to get him into art schools on the East Coast. Sanders recently returned from the East Coast and said she ran into a former student who'd helped design the Ralph Lauren Chaps outerwear line.
"(Nigel) is a talented kid who could do as well without even thinking about it," Sanders said.
As a senior adviser, Sanders also has had the opportunity to work with Penhale on activities.
"He just goes at it with such enthusiasm," Sanders said. "That makes all of the students want to get involved."
So where does he get the energy for it all?
"I think he just pulls it from the inside," Sanders said. "He's one of those kids that manufactures energy.
"He understands how to take time and be introspective, and he gets energy from that."
Nikiski football coach Scott Anderson also appreciates Penhale's energy. Penhale has started for the team since he was a sophomore.
His sophomore year, his team won the Great Land Conference. Last year, the team repeated as conference champs and won the first-ever small-schools state championship. Finally, this year the Bulldogs turned a lot of heads in the state when they defeated Anchorage big school Service.
"I remember when he was a sophomore. We were up at Eielson and they introduced the starters and the whole other side of the stadium started laughing when he ran out," said Anderson of Penhale, who is now listed as 5-foot-5, 200 pounds on Nikiski's roster. "Back then, he was only 140 or 150 pounds, and he was starting on the line.
"He definitely earned some respect that game, and he continued to earn it all season."
Penhale said the experience of staying with the same group of guys from freshmen on the junior varsity to state champs as juniors has been invaluable.
However, he also talks fondly of the experience he's had in hockey. He went out for the team as a sophomore when he had never skated before.
"Three weeks into the season, our starting goalie was ineligible and I started three games in a row," Penhale said. "We won two and lost one."
Unlike football, where Penhale said he and his teammates were all equally knowledgeable about the game, hockey forced Penhale to realize how much it helped when seniors like Mario Bird, Quincy Bird and Seth Tauriainen would take time to explain hockey to him.
"Hockey taught me a lot about leadership," Penhale said. "Now that I'm a senior, I remember what it was like to be an underclassman, and how I looked up to what the seniors did.
"I want to be a good role model for the younger players and teach them everything I can. They're what's going to carry on the program."
Anderson said it's going to be hard when an attitude like that walks out of the locker room for the last time.
"Every once in a while, one of those team leaders comes along who's impossible to replace," Anderson said. "That's Nigel.
"He's selfless. He'll do whatever it takes."
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