My ex wife and my oldest son went to New York City on a school field trip this week, so I have had the pleasure of taking care of Ollie, my 7 year old son.
When his brother, Dylan, learned to ride bikes, we had the whole family support group together...though I was largely responsible for teaching Dylan, I knew that if he ended up with skinned knees, his mom was home, able to help with first aid and cookies, if need be. It seems like I remember that Dylan learned pretty quickly, suffered a few set backs, including more than one episode with wasps stinging him while on rides, but eventually, he became quite able to ride. By the time he was 10 years old, he even joined me on a Critical Mass ride around Fort Worth, and a ride from downtown Fort Worth to Prairie Fest, out at the Tandy Hills Nature Area.
Oliver, on the other hand, has the same family members supporting his efforts to learn how to ride, but his support group is divided by divorce. Two different homes. Two different bikes.
I started trying to teach him a couple of years ago. Before the divorce, I bought a knock-off strider bike, a bike with no pedals, designed to teach kids to balance without training wheels. I saw videos of kids doing all kinds of amazing tricks, off-roading and coasting with these things. Ollie seemed too tall for the one I found, so his use of the bike was never as graceful as the videos I found.
In the months of separation and divorce, teaching Ollie to ride became a back burner issue. He outgrew the baby bikes we had been given by friends or found in thrift stores, so I took the pedals off of Dylans Specialized kids bike and let Ollie practice coasting on it. The wheels and pedal cranks look a bit big, but with the seat in the lowest position, Ollie could easily manage to push the bike with just his feet, so in between long boarding lessons and checkers and legos, we occasionally tried balancing on the bike, coasting up and down the sidewalk.
Yesterday, after spending the day at the Fort Worth Zoo, I suggested it was time to take the bike out again. Still without pedals, needing air in its tires, I set it up, inflated the tires, and set Ollie to work. He immediately made it look easy, so I asked him if he wanted pedals.
"Yep, I'm ready," he answered cheefully.
I had a pair of aluminum platform pedals with harsh looking studs that I feared would skin his shins, but I put them on anyway, and instructed him to put his feet on the pedals while I pushed.
"Just use them to balance at first, buddy." I guided him, one hand under the saddle and one hand on the left side of his handle bars. We coasted awkwardly down the sidewalk while I tried to feel that moment when I knew he was balancing on his own.
I'm sure someone has written poetry about this parental task...teaching a kid to ride. It's ripe for metaphor: supporting, guiding, with the ultimate goal of letting the child go, autonomously into the dangerous world, without our protective power. If I do it right, I give Ollie the ability to leave me. If I do it wrong, he will be bound to the sidewalk, dependent upon others for transportation.
I suggested we try to get to the park over on 5th, thinking that he might be able to ride in the open field. Slowly but surely, we labored down Allen and took a left on 5th, just past the Arts Center. As we made our way down the sidewalk, I notice a couple of boys sitting at a picnic table in the park.
"Hey! You trying to teach him to ride?" One yells, even before I we are across the street.
"You should teach him the Mexican way," he suggests.
I'm closer now, so I ask, "yeah? What's the Mexican way?"
"You take him to a hill, and the gravity keeps him rolling until he learns to keep going...he has no choice but to ride!" As I listen I grin, shaking my head. Imagining the skinned knees and elbows and possible medical bills....
"That's not a bad idea, but I'm gonna keep trying this first..." I started pushing Ollie in the grass, running with him as he began to pedal. Almost immediately, he was riding, though slowed by the thick grass. The louder of the two boys kept offering advice and suggestions...I took out my phone and made video clips of Ollie's successes. His failures were minor, and he seemed to feel safe enough to risk riding faster. He faltered when I tried to get him to ride on the park sidewalk, but I was still happy with the success we had experienced in the grass.
As we worked, the boys, who had started playing catch with a football, started yelling offensive curses to each other.
"Come on guys. Watch that language, I've got a little one here!" I used my teacher voice, slightly stern, but with a calm though plaintive quality that I could quickly transform into the voice of authority if need be.
As Ollie and I tried to leave, the loud one punted his ball so that it landed close enough to me that I was able to grab it and send it back in a forceful spiral, albeit a bit low to be a good pass.
"Hey!" He threw it back. I caught it and returned it in a high spiral arc.
Once more, then another....then, Ollie and I headed back down 5th towards Allen.
"Have a good one, guys!" As I guided Ollie back home, I smiled knowing that kids really haven't changed that much. I was in Ollie's shoes once...relying on my mom to guide me into the realm of self-supported cycling...I was like those kids in the park, testing newly found autonomy, challenging the world with words, testing my place in the hierarchy of things.