Friday, July 17, 2009

Once You Learn How, You Never Forget

The beauty of Sarah Dessen’s analogy of bike-riding in Along for the Ride is that—up to this summer—Auden West has accomplished everything by thinking it through, and often, as Eli puts it, “overthinking.” But there is no way to intellectually master riding a bike, you have to just do it. The fact that Auden would, at age 18, be willing to learn to ride says more about her open-mindedness, and her willingness to change, than just about anything else could.

Everyone in my neighborhood knew how to ride a bike by age five. It was the way kids got to their friends’ houses, met up at the A&W on South Westnedge for hot dogs and root beer, and traveled to the baseball diamond. When we moved to Kalamazoo, Mich., I was seven. And I did not know how to ride a bike.

On the 4th of July, my Uncle Chris came to visit us in our new home. (He is my father’s brother, four years younger than my dad.) Uncle Chris probably learned of my dilemma in a conversation that went something like this:

“What are you doing inside? It’s a beautiful day. Why don’t you go ride your bike?”
Barely audible, I might have said, “I don’t know how.”
“What?” (booming voice) “You don’t know how to ride a bike? Well today you’re going to learn.”

Uncle Chris removed the training wheels from my bike and, just as Dessen describes Auden’s experience with Maggie as her “buddy,” he held onto the bike and ran alongside me, and then let go, “Keep pedaling!” he’d shout. Yes, I fell a number of times. But each time my uncle would say, “Let’s try again,” and I’d mount the bike and off we’d go, with him running alongside (“Keep pedaling!”). We did this again and again until, suddenly, I didn’t fall. I kept going. I pedaled and pedaled all the way to the end of our street and then turned right, and, aided by gravity, swiftly flew down a steep hill on a dead end street. I can still feel the wind rushing through my shoulder-length hair with the breakaway speed of it. And, because I did not yet know how to stop, I came to a soft landing smack in the middle of the Parker family’s peonies. They were very nice about it. The best part was, I now knew how to ride a bike. (I just had to practice braking.)

How sympathetic perfect Auden seems as she tries to convince Eli, a competitive stunt biker, that she’s pretty sure she learned how to ride when she was six. He knows there is no gray area. You either know how or you don’t. Once you do, your body intuitively shifts to stay upright, adjusting a little to the left or right, forward or backward, to maintain that balance. It’s not something you think about.

But Auden is willing to learn. As Adam, another biker in Dessen’s novel puts it, “What defines you isn’t how many times you crash, but the number of times you get back on the bike.” Once she masters the bike, we know Auden will be just fine.

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