Friday, January 07, 2022

What I Learned From Learning To Ride A Bike

She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life. ~Susan B. Anthony

I recently watched a neighbor teaching his grandchild how to ride a bike she had received as a Christmas gift. It got me thinking about me own journey as a cyclist.

My first bicycle was a red Western Flyer. A few of the other neighborhood kids my age were managing two-wheelers so my parents agreed with me that it was time to learn.

Dad was going to be out of town on a business trip, but he promised to teach me how to ride when he returned which meant I had several days to get to know my exciting new bike before I was to receive proper instruction. There really wasn't a trick to riding a tricycle -- just jump on the seat, put your feet on the pedals and go -- but the bike proved to be much trickier. I could straddle the bar with my feet on the ground. I could even lift my bottom onto the seat and get one foot on a pedal, but, of course, when I lifted my other foot off the ground I fell over.

At one point, I figured out how to lean the bike against a tree trunk in such a way that I could sit on the seat, with both feet on the pedals, but there was no way to move forward from this position. I got pretty good at sitting on the seat with one foot on the ground, then rocking the bike to the other side where I caught myself with the opposite foot. I spent at least an hour playing with my bike in this way, but as for forward motion, as for two feet on two pedals, I was stumped.

Mom, witnessing what she must have interpreted as my struggles, gave me a tip: "Get a foot on one pedal then push off with the other foot to give yourself some momentum." I'd never heard the word "momentum" before, but in context I understood it as you have to get going a little bit before you can get going a lot. It made a certain kind of sense, but it also struck me as something of a paradox. How do you get going before you get going?

When Dad got home, he took me to a little used, unpaved, dirt road that ran along behind the newly-constructed elementary school that I was destined to one day attend. His idea was that since I was likely to fall a few times, the dirt road would offer a softer fall than asphalt, while grass, although even softer, was too uneven for a beginner. Mom had told him that I'd been practicing, so he asked me to show him what I'd figured out on my own, which to my mind wasn't much. I showed him how I could sit on the seat properly if I leaned the bike against a tree. I showed him how I could rock back and forth. And then I attempted Mom's "momentum" move, giving it my all, resulting in my falling into the dirt. 

As he dusted me off, he said, "You already know everything you need to know to ride a bike. You know what it feels like to sit on your bike. You know how to take your feet of the pedals to catch yourself if you start to fall. You know how to balance a little. And you know how to fall."

He said, "Okay, so let me be the tree." He held the bike upright as I climbed on, putting both feet on the pedals. "Now I'm going to rock you back and forth a little bit and you use your feet to catch yourself." We did that a few times. "Now I'm going to help you with momentum. I'll push you a little bit while you pedal." And that was the moment that I really understood what that word meant. He held the back of the seat as I moved exhilaratingly forward. It was a sunny day and while he was behind me, I could see his shadow on a dirt, connected to the shadow of me on my bicycle. I then forgot about Dad for a moment, turning my attentions to the road ahead. 

When I looked back for his shadow it was gone. I was riding on my own!

I felt a surge of thrill and panic as I wobbled and fell. We tried it again, but this time I started with one foot on the ground while Dad again helped me with momentum. This time he let go almost right away. I felt the momentum right away. I was riding again! As I got farther and farther away from Dad it occurred to me that I didn't know how to stop. I knew the bike had "coaster brakes." Like with the concept of momentum, I understood that I was to pedal backward in order to slow down or stop, but I couldn't get my body to do it. Indeed, I couldn't stop my legs from pedaling forward, so I steered toward a patch of roadside grass and leapt for it, leaving my two-wheeler to careen along without me until it lost momentum and fell.

It was time to head home for dinner. Dad promised me that he'd teach me how to properly stop the following weekend.

Not knowing how to stop seemed like a very minor problem to me. After all, the riding was the important thing. And besides, I did know how to stop. It involved leaping into the grass and every house along our cul-de-sac had grass lawns. I could leap off anywhere I might want to go, which is what I did all week. One of the older kids called me "James Bond," which I took as a cool compliment even though I had no idea who James Bond was. It wasn't long before several of the other kids had adopted my dismount technique. We even started competing to see who could get their bike to continue the farthest without a rider.

The following weekend, I showed Dad what I could do. I figured out how to use the brakes to slow down, I showed him how I had figured out how to steer and how I could go really fast. And I showed him my James Bond dismount. He congratulated me, saying, "You've learned to ride a bike."

I don't remember learning how to stop and dismount properly, but at some point along the way, I obviously figured that out as well. 

What I didn't know until I watched my neighbor putting his grandchild in the position to learn about momentum, balance, braking, stopping, speed, practice, falling, and freedom, was that I'd also learned a lot about teaching. I'd learned about the importance of letting go a little before the learner thinks they're ready. I learned that teaching is indistinguishable from loving. And I'd learned, that instructions and concepts are mere words until they are put into action. 

Or as the late great Bev Bos would say, "If it hasn't been in the hand and body, it can't be in the brain."


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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