We share a cycle of learning

"It's just like riding a bicycle" is a fixed phrase used to describe skills which, once acquired, never leave us. Think swimming, skating, or throwing a ball. And yes, think of riding a bicycle.

One does not realize how unlikely an ability this is until one has watched a child struggle and fret to master it. For me – and no doubt for everyone else who can ride a bike – it is remarkable that one actually has to learn to ride. I mean, it's so easy, so automatic, so innate.

Well, no, it isn't. Not in the beginning, at least. I experienced this recently when I bought a bike for my 6-year-old son. He was thrilled to receive it and immediately claimed he knew how to ride, which, of course, he didn't. I watched as he insisted on trying to mount the thing on his own, and I watched as – time and again – the bike fell, or he fell, or they both fell. Finally Anton kicked the bike and stormed off, announcing that he didn't want a bike after all.

This, clearly, was going to be a long haul.

But nothing grants empathy like reflecting on one's own experience. I was 7 before I received my first bike. It was a gold 20-incher. I hovered with anxious anticipation as my father carefully – and much too slowly for my needs – assembled it. Once it was put together, he steadied it to study the true of the wheels.

Excited to the bursting point, I squeezed in between his arms and attempted to mount the bike, against my father's protests that I would need training wheels for a while.

Training wheels? Those clickety-clack appendages that little kids used? Nonsense. I would have none of it. While my father held the bike steady I placed both feet squarely on the pedals, applied pressure, and called for my father to let go.

He did, I took off, and for three or four seconds I floated like an angel – until I plowed into my mother's roses. And there I lay in a mire of thorns, petals, a few angry bees, and, of course, my bicycle.

The next thing I knew, my father was bolting on the training wheels while I looked on, contrite and battle-scarred.

Anton looked on as well, from his retreat behind the big silver maple in our yard, as I attached the training wheels to his bike. Once done, the bike stood there on its own in the driveway, glistening blue in the sun, beckoning to Anton to take a spin.

He couldn't resist, and I helped him into the saddle. I could sense his mix of unease and excitement as he sat upon his stallion, his little knuckles whitening as he gripped the handlebars. He leaned forward into the breeze, as if he were already under way.

"Give me a push," he said. I did so, and I jogged to keep up as he moved off, the training wheels rattling. For a while he did pretty well, and then he attempted a turn and, training wheels or no, fell over onto the side of the road.

There were no rose bushes this time, and no bees, but as I looked down at my son and tried to allay his whimpering, I realized that this was me lying there in the dirt and grit. And the look on Anton's face was the same as mine must have been those long years ago. It was the look that said, "I will never learn how to ride a bike."

I helped him up and dusted him off. "You'll do it," I consoled him. "You just have to practice."

After pulling himself together, he got back on, rattled off, made another unsuccessful turn, but managed to return home with a pilot light of enthusiasm still burning.

Teaching a child to ride a bike is one of those things a parent can do with complete confidence, because a successful outcome is all but inevitable. At first blush it seems an impossible challenge, calling, as it does, upon such a complex integration of the senses: sight, coordination, balance. On his first inaugural run – with the hated training wheels – Anton had none of these going for him. His eyes were on the handlebars rather than the road, he couldn't pedal and turn at the same time, and he seemed perched precariously upon his bicycle, constantly on the brink of collapse.

Then, slowly but surely, over the ensuing days it came together. The rides became smoother, the turns more competent, the falls less frequent. In fact, Anton was riding so hard that the training wheels were bending upward, barely touching the ground now. Although he wasn't aware of it (and this is the whole point), his balance had arrived.

The next morning dawned bright and warm. Anton awoke to see his bike leaning against the garage.

"Where are the training wheels?" he asked.

"You don't need them," I told him. And I knew this with as much conviction as I know any great truth.

Cautiously, and with only a veneer of doubt, Anton approached the bike as I held it for him. He got on, I asked him if he was OK, he nodded, and I gave the ceremonial push. He sped off down the street with only the slightest wobble, which soon smoothed out.

When I was a boy, I found a baby robin that had fallen from its nest. I kept it in a shoe box for a couple of weeks, nurtured it, and holding it in my hand, lofted it heavenward several times a day. One day it actually flew off.

I can still remember the catch in my throat.

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