Learning to Ride a Bike

I was twelve years old when I learned to ride a bike. Other things came easier to me. I learned to talk so far ahead of schedule that in my early days of preschool I spent my days talking to my teachers, since no one else could hold much of a conversation. When I was in kindergarten, I took a test that determined I could read at a tenth grade reading level. When it came to riding a bike, though, I was anything but ahead of the curve. 

It wasn’t that I was uninterested in learning the art of the bicycle at an appropriate age. In fact, four-year-old me would often ride around her neighborhood on her prized tricycle, dreaming of the day that that pesky third wheel could be taken off. That was, however, until she crashed into a tree and came falling off. After that, her tricycle sat collecting dust in the garage.

As I put down my trike, I picked up a backpack. I started Saint Stephen’s in kindergarten. I was a very good student, as good as a kindergartener can really be, I suppose. On my first day of school, I was pronounced line leader. Maybe that doesn’t mean much, but to me, it was not a position to be taken lightly. Success was a common theme for me throughout elementary school. For every one thing I had trouble with, there seemed to be five things that I mastered without difficulty. After all, as I would so often assert, I was bound for the Ivy League. 

I saw the introduction of the sports credit in middle school as an offense to the highest degree. I wasn’t good at sports, so I didn’t play them. Why on earth would I do something that I wasn’t good at? It seemed completely counterintuitive. I joined the cheer team, and I performed just about as well as I expected to. Not well at all, that is. I spent many an hour crying over my failures in cheer. To my way of looking, cheerleaders were everything I wasn’t. They were loud, outgoing, athletic, and graceful. I wanted to quit. I needed to quit. But I couldn’t. I knew if I did that I would just find myself in the same situation with a different sport. So I didn’t quit. Looking back on it, I doubt I was much worse than any of my peers on the Saint Stephen’s middle school cheer team. In fact, I almost came to enjoy my time with them.

I wish I could say that my time on the cheerleading team taught me some life-changing lesson about sticking with things even when they’re hard, but it most certainly did not. As soon as I met the P.E. credit requirements, I quit. Even though I didn’t excel in athletics, I had the whole rest of the school day to shine. I aced every subject. I saw myself as one of the smartest people in my grade. I could get past cheer as long as I knew I was still bound for the Ivy League.

The first seeds of doubt were sowed in my mind when I entered Latin club. I was good at Latin, so why wouldn’t I join Latin club? I quit within the first week. When I sat down for my first Latin club lunch meeting, I realized that I wasn’t any better at it than anyone else in the room. In fact, I was worse. The first time I attempted to answer a question, I got it wrong. I scanned the room, and I could tell by the reactions of my peers that the question I missed should have been easy. I never answered another question again. I sat in the back during the next meeting, and never came again after that. Quitting was infinitely better than failure. 

I was a little less confident in class after that. I doubt anyone even noticed it, but I can’t really say for sure. It wasn’t as though I had never quit something before. By that time, I had quit soccer, volleyball, piano, tuba, cello, art, and of course, learning to ride a bike. This time was different. It was my first time in a room of just the smartest people in my grade, and I hadn’t measured up. I wasn’t one of them. I was still smart, I never doubted that, but I wasn’t anywhere near the smartest.

The Latin club incident happened when I was twelve. Being a middle school age girl, I was down on myself for a lot of reasons, but that was certainly one of them. At that time, my relationship with my mom was tumultuous at best. I was far too grown up to depend on her, despite it being the time I needed her the most. Even though I certainly would not tell her any of the things I was feeling, she was once a twelve year old girl herself, so she knew what I was going through. She decided to help, and her way of doing so was to buy me a bike. I was not pleased with this development. In fact, I outright refused to so much as look at it. I regarded my inability to ride a bike as a great shame, and that was not a shame that I was ready to confront. As far as I was concerned, the bike didn’t exist. But she was patient, and she waited me out. I began to think about how it was a nice bicycle that probably cost a lot of money, and I began to think that every day it sat unused was a waste of a thoughtful gift that she picked for me. Eventually, guilt consumed me. As with the tell-tale heart, I could hear the wheels of my abandoned bicycle squeaking, calling out for me. I finally decided enough was enough. I answered their call.

It was April of 2016 when I began to attempt to ride my new bike. I had made up my mind that I would master the art of the bicycle before I turned thirteen on April 23.  So, eight years after my infamous tricycle incident, I finally decided it was time to try again. Finding the right time to ride it was tricky. I couldn’t let anyone in the neighborhood see me practicing, since that would be admitting to the world that I, an able bodied twelve year old, could not ride a bike.

It only took me a few days to learn. After waiting eight years, it only took me a few days. I will never forget the feeling I had when I first realized I was riding with no help. I kept pedalling faster and faster until I couldn’t move my legs any quicker. I was flying, and in that moment, I knew I never needed to be scared.

My mom always loves to joke that I learned how to ride a bike without falling once. Of course, that doesn’t account for the nasty spill I took as a four year old, but it does certainly say something about me. I have a lot of pride in myself. I couldn’t let myself fall. That’s what happens when you have supportive parents and do well on tests. You think you can do anything, that you should be able to do anything, so much so that failing is not even an option. Where some would see this as motivation to excel wherever possible, constantly pushing themselves to new heights, I saw it as a deterrent to try something I could be bad at. And now, I regard that as my biggest failure of all. 

However, discussing all those negatives negates from my success. I learned to ride a bike, I did it before I turned thirteen, and I only fell once. Maybe I’m reading too much into things, but maybe my mom bought me a bicycle to show me that it’s okay to not be the best at everything. It’s okay to take eight extra years to ride a bike, as long as you get there. In the words of Billy Joel in what might be the most comforting song of all time, “Slow down, you’re doing fine. You can’t be everything you want to be before your time.” Maybe she wanted to show me that it’s okay to fail as long as you try again. Or maybe, she just thought it was high time for me to learn how to ride a bike. 

Whatever the case, I certainly did learn something from that experience. I didn’t have such profound thoughts as these, but in the back of my mind, I think something shifted just a little bit. I got some of my confidence back. It wasn’t immediate by any means, but it was certainly a turning point for me. 

Freshman year, I signed up for the hardest course load I could take. I was scared out of my mind. I didn’t know if I could handle it. I could. Just as I had come to accept that I wasn’t the smartest person in my grade when I was twelve, I also came to accept that I could still hold my own with them when I was fourteen. Sophomore year, I signed up for the hardest classes again. 

I still don’t feel that I measure up to my peers sometimes. When I get to lunch and most of my friends are gone to practice with academic team, I feel disappointed in myself. When I heard the credentials of the most recent Cum Laude Society inductees, I felt hopeless. How can I ever be as successful as they are? I think the answer is one that I am currently making my peace with: I don’t need to be.

My dad lived the dream that my younger self had: he went to an Ivy League college. Cornell, to be exact, although he was also accepted into Harvard. My mom went to UF, though, and they both ended up in the exact same tax law program where they met. In fact, my mom had the job that my dad currently does before he got it. I’m not the person to do ten clubs and four sports and find the time to volunteer at a soup kitchen on Saturdays. I find it hard enough to be social with other people for seven hours and then drive myself home to get started on my work. I’m not the person to go to an Ivy League school, and that’s okay. I’m the person who works so hard that she can feel at home in all honors or AP classes, even if she’s not the smartest in the room. I’m the person whose comfort zone is about the size of her pinkie nail, but still pushes herself to do as many new and challenging things as she can handle. I might be the person who took eight years to learn to ride a bicycle, but I’m also the person who did it her own way, and the person who only fell once.

October 2, 2020

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