Astoria Characters: The Special Teacher

Growing up, Nicholas Alexandrakos was always interested in his family’s history.

With grandparents from Greece and Italy who spoke their native languages at home, how could he not be?

“So much of my upbringing was talking about foreign lands I’d never been to,” he says. “When we celebrated the holidays, everyone talked about how it was done in the old country.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Nicholas’ last name used to be Alexander.

That’s why he changed his last name.

Alexander, not Alexandrakos, was the one bestowed upon him when he was born in Brooklyn, and it was the one he went by when he was growing up in Queens.

It was, after all, his father’s. But, as Nicholas came to find out, it was not his family’s.

“My grandfather was an undocumented laborer,” says Nicholas. “He jumped ship and changed his name to Alexander. He didn’t become a U.S. citizen until he married. He died when I was young, so I never got to hear the full story or know his point of view.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He has a keen interest in history, especially his family’s.

But that didn’t keep Nicholas from speculating. Was the alteration done because Alexandrakos was too difficult for Americans to pronounce? Or was it switched to hide his grandfather’s real identity from the authorities?

“I never liked the feeling of explaining why Alexander is and isn’t right and wrong,” he says. “So after I graduated from college, I changed it to Alexandrakos.”

If things had worked out differently, Nicholas would have turned his passion for history into his life’s work.

That’s what he majored in at Hunter College.

“Actually, I wanted to be an archaeologist,” he says, adding that his interest intensified when he did field work during a study-abroad program in Pylos, Greece. “But I was $28,000 in debt when I graduated, so I decided to teach a little then return to school when I had paid it down.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He’s the gym teacher at Robert Louis Stevenson therapeutic college prep in Manhattan.

His first job was at The Child School/Legacy High School on Roosevelt Island, whose students have what the institution classifies as “learning challenges.”

Nicholas’ salary was $28,000 – the same amount as his college debts.

The job was tailor-made for Nicholas,  who “with one foot in Queens and the other on the other side of the Atlantic,” kept trying to see where he fit in.

He started as a full-time substitute teacher and took over a math class then a gym class.

“I thought, ‘Math is fun, but PE is more fun,’” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He started the school’s after-school athletic teams.

After a year, he got a job at Robert Louis Stevenson, Manhattan’s only therapeutic college prep independent school.

It enrolls bright students in grades 8 through 12 who cannot navigate the traditional school environment.

Nicholas, the gym teacher and director of athletics as well as the advisor/counselor/in-school advocate to a group of nine students, is one of 20 teachers at the school, which has an enrollment of 75.

“When I went there 12 years ago, there were no after-school programs,” he says. “So I started ones for soccer, basketball and track and field and founded a league with similar schools.  In the beginning, I was the coach for all of them; now I only do some.”

Nicholas’ teams train in Astoria Park, which is where the league competitions are played.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
An avid cyclist, he’s ridden the 165 miles from Brooklyn to Montauk in 11 hours.

“I realize that I’m entitled, so I feel a responsibility to help the youth, especially this population, which is neglected, misunderstood or has fallen through the cracks,” he says. “The connections I have with the students, especially the student athletes, have an impact on their lives; I share in their success and excitement.”

When Nicholas is not at school, he’s spending time with his family. His son, Filippo, who is 1 and a half, will carry on the Alexandrakos name.

An avid New York Cosmos fan, he coaches soccer.

“I’m big on fitness,” he says, adding that he works out four to five times a week to work off stress. “In the Queens Turkey Trot 5K last year, I finished 21:18, which was ninth in my age group. Most of the time, I ride my bike to work – I go over the Triborough,” he says. “Door to door, it’s 6.5 miles.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Nicholas loves making a positive impact on people’s lives.

He’s also ridden his 18-speed Scattante the 165 miles from Brooklyn to Montauk.

“Non-stop, except for five- to 10-minute breaks to drink and eat, it takes me 11 hours,” he says. “I rent a hotel and sleep over or have someone pick me up.”

Nicholas fills in the rest of his schedule by volunteering at the Coney Island Lighthouse Mission’s food pantry.

He says it’s important to give back, adding that The Notorious B.I.G. lyric “spread love, it’s the Brooklyn way” is his motto.

At this point in time, Nicholas, who just turned 38, can’t see himself doing anything else.

“Teaching at Robert Louis Stevenson is the perfect place for me,” he says.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at NRuhling@gmail.com, @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling