A bicycle is built from flat-out magic, and if you don’t see that, you need to ride more.
Although the age of kids roaming town in two-wheeled hordes has yielded to the onslaught of pixelated indoor entertainment, the bicycle still has a strong presence in our home. Like it did for me, the bicycle offered my older two sons their first opportunity to venture beyond the sight of mom and dad, and all of the accompanying independence and risk. To lean low over the handlebars and plummet down the biggest hill available is as close as most of us will come to flying a jet fighter. But there is more to the bicycle than just freedom and thrills. Riding teaches us simple lessons that transfer across life in profound ways, like the fact that you tend to go where you’re looking. When there’s a particularly gnarly patch on the path ahead, your surest bet to wind up in a bloodied hump in it is to tense up, worry and stare. Potholes smell fear and will suck you right in. But if you keep your head up, pedals turning, and eyes where you want to go, you’ll cruise through your fears like they’re just a bump in the road. For that reason alone, it always seemed to me that Isaac would make a natural cyclist.
I don’t know which word best straddles the divide between worry and terror, but that’s how I felt about Isaac starting Kindergarten. Isaac has cerebral palsy. He needs special equipment to help him walk. His mind works just as well as any other kid his age, but he fumbles when trying to find his words. He compensates by being funny. Sometimes that works. Other times it’s just weird. Still, there was no tangible reason for me to be afraid. Our local school district was nearly perfect in their approach to the school year. We presented them with a list of what we thought Isaac needed in the classroom, only to find that they’d anticipated those needs, plus a few more. We were better prepared for this transition than any Isaac had been through before.
Isaac’s teacher invited him for a private classroom tour the week before school began, to get acquainted, but also to make sure the layout of the room worked with his equipment. As we moved through the school, it became clear that if someone was going to have a problem with this transition, it wasn’t going to be Isaac. He moved very well; but I found myself jumping to catch him when he wasn’t falling, reaching to help him when he wasn’t struggling. Slowly, I became convinced that maybe this was what he needed. Maybe, after years of being his coach, guardian and cheerleader, it was time to take a half-step back.
Leaving that first classroom meeting, I received an excited text message from my wife. United Cerebral Palsy was offering a Rifton bike for free. A Rifton bike is a tricycle on steroids, upsized for a Kindergartener and equipped with a variety of safety and mobility aides. They cost over a thousand dollars. Insurance had rejected our attempt to get one earlier in the year. Now, one sat for free a short drive away. We made the drive.
I expected Isaac to return from his first day of Kindergarten exhausted. I had a snack waiting on the kitchen table and a stack of books piled beside the couch. I was ready to welcome a sweaty, cranky young man, ready for a nap. I was, again, wrong. As the van door slid open, I saw a little boy with a giant smile on his face, halfway through a raucous laugh with the rest of the vehicle. I helped him inside, where he laid on the couch for just a few minutes, rejected my snack, and asked to go ride his bicycle.
That was Isaac’s first week of school. Days spent navigating this new “big kid” world. Evenings spent tearing around the driveway on his new bike. Isaac discovered that he could lock up his rear wheels, slide around a turn, and leave skid marks on the driveway. Then he discovered that he could let the wheels roll, turn sharper, and ride the turn on two wheels, something even his older brothers would never dare attempt.
I think there’s a lesson there about how we treat those with disabilities. These kids don’t need to be pulled behind the crowd, constantly nagged and pushed to keep pace. I admit I am guilty of that. If we offer the right structure, the right support around them, they can thrive and lead on their own. . . I think. But right now I’m off to keep my disabled son from riding himself straight to the emergency room.
Nathan Hackman is a stay-at-home dad to four boys, one with cerebral palsy. He writes about the amazing adventure of parenting with a few extra challenges. In his free time he . . . doesn’t have free time.