Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Teaching a Teenager to Ride a Bike at Westminster's "Learning Grounds"

Earlier this fall, a family from Buenos Aires came for a visit, and at some point it became known that the son, Mariano, had somehow reached the age of 16 without having learned to ride a bike. Princeton seemed the perfect place to rectify that situation, and so he and I headed over to nearby Westminster Choir College, bike in tow.

It was funny, as we walked towards Westminster on a weekend afternoon, to see kids and adults riding by on their bikes. They suddenly looked like showoffs. One realizes that what we take for granted is really a special skill--a kind of mainstreamed circus act.

Youtube videos on how to teach an adult to ride recommend using a sidewalk or other paved surface, but my preference for passing along this life-transforming skill is a smoothly sloping lawn. My younger daughter learned on this slope at Westminster Choir College, though she had the advantage of being much younger, with less far to fall if things went awry.

Videos offer some basic tips. Set the seat low so they can use their feet like trainer wheels. Have them look ahead, not down, and get comfortable using the brakes to control speed. Don't bother with the pedals until they've gained some stability coasting with legs hanging down to the sides.

I was surprised at how satisfying it is to mentor someone, to pass a life-changing skill from one generation to the next. My role was to offer some pointers, then watch as he would head off down the slope, gaining in balance and confidence each time.

We were on "learning grounds", a special spot overseen by proud Williamson Hall, with beautiful cloud patterns against the glorious evening sky, a half moon, and then the beauty of a bicyclist-in-the-making heading off into the distance, each time more on his own, a metaphor for how the mentored gain independence and ultimately go forth into the world. In this case, Mariano will take this learning with him back to a distant home, to finally join his friends on bike rides in Buenos Aires.

The advantages of learning to ride a bike in Princeton became even more apparent when Mariano had gained sufficient skill to head out on an expedition with his father. We took the big loop that begins with the towpath along the DR Canal, then headed back towards Princeton on the bikepath next to Quaker Road, passing the Updike Farm, Princeton Friends School, the Stonybrook Meeting House,

then stopped at the Princeton Battlefield, where Mariano translated the story of the great victory for his father.

We came next to the backside of the Institute for Advanced Study, with its brainy tradition beginning with Flexner, Veblen and Einstein.

For Mariano, a new world of self-propelled mobility was opening up. For me, it was a chance to pass along the benefits of a sort of mentoring that I received briefly in my youth, on the learning grounds surrounding another great institution--Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, longtime home of the University of Chicago's astronomy department. There, a grad student from Canada named Mike Marlboro taught me how to kick a football. It doesn't sound like much, and certainly didn't prove to be the ticket to new worlds, but something in his unrushed manner and tone of voice made me--a little kid among intimidating adults--feel worthwhile. I would watch with amazement at the beautiful spiral and arc of the ball as he made it soar into the sky, and then he'd show me how he did it, with a patience that stretched to the stars. He may have only mentored me a few times, and yet I've felt a lifetime of gratitude for the way he stepped out of his adult world to accept me as I was, and help me along my way.

The ground, I like to think, remembers the learning that happens upon it. Like the Mercer Oak that is said to have witnessed the Battle of Princeton during the Revolutionary War, ground gains in meaning for what it witnesses. As I write this, the future of Westminster Choir College is in jeopardy, and after 120 years the University of Chicago pulled out of Yerkes Observatory, turning that proud learning grounds into what feels now more like a cemetery. A distinguished edifice overlooking expansive green--our lives are aided and ennobled by such places, and I'd like to think future lives will be, too.

Another post about mentoring Mariano, When the Body Teaches the Mind, describes the process of teaching him to chop wood.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

A great and inspiring piece. We should all be ready to see new sights, empowered by wind and wheels (non-fossil fuel burning ones).

Thanks for sharing,