My career as a bicycle instructor for four grandkids is over. It lasted nearly 20 years and came close to ending the way it began, with a student face down after a fall.
My daughter and son say someone else taught them to ride, so my first real bicycle pupil was my grandson Nicholas, now 25. We took the training wheels off his bike one summer day, and two or three sessions later, he could stay upright without me holding onto him or running alongside. We were both pleased and decided it was time to show Grandma what her first grandchild could do.
I remember ringing the doorbell and asking Irene to come out and watch. Nick took off on his little blue bike, rode magnificently and straight for about 20 feet before he headed toward a bush and fell into it.
His sister Rachel was next up. After a few outings with the training wheels off, I arrived at her house one hot, August day and announced, "This is the day we do it, Rachel," and it was. I was jogging in a soaked T-shirt, ready to grab her if necessary, when she chided me, "Keep up, Grandpa!" Easy for her to say. It was not only August and steaming; I was in my 60s.
After our success that day, we occasionally went for rides, including a trip to Shelter Island, where she described pedaling up the hills as "arduous" -- an appropriate word, but one that surprised me coming from such a young girl. Another time in her neighborhood, I was leading the way on the sidewalk of a busy street when I looked back, and she wasn't there. Well, she was, but I couldn't see her because she wasn't on her bike. She had run into a small phone booth at a service station. An attendant and a customer ran to help her up while her grandfather pedaled on.
After a sabbatical of several years, another granddaughter, Daniella, took her turn. Instead of giving lessons near her house, we went to the big parking lot at Lido Beach Park. Approaching my mid-70s, my teaching technique had changed. I used my lungs more than my legs and simply kept repeating, "Keep pedaling, keep pedaling." After four or five lessons, Daniella was very close to achieving the stability and confidence she needed to ride, but she lost interest. Grandpa, her parents were told, was constantly yelling — an allegation that was ridiculous but identical to one made by several scalawags during my working years.
Although I stressed that once you "got it," bike riding was something she could do the rest of her life, Daniella responded, "That's OK. I don't care." At family gatherings, I teased her about when was she going to try again. Never, not interested, were the signals I got.
I had let her down and was disappointed that I wasn't patient (or something) enough to get through to her so she felt comfortable on a bike and discovered how much fun it can be. Even Santa joined in the nudging, bringing her a new set of wheels one Christmas.
A couple of years passed before my last grandchild-student, Cristiana, was ready. We began with a spin on the boardwalk in Long Beach with her training wheels on, taking breaks while sharing a bottle of water. Not long afterward, the baby wheels were discarded, and we went to her school, which has a long stretch of concrete in back, next to a grassy playing field. Daniella came along — she knew we were going to make an ice cream run later — but with a scooter — not her new, never-used bicycle.
After an hour with many, many chants of "keep pedaling, keep pedaling," Cristiana was really close to being a bike rider. She was wobbly, needed a push to get started, turned when she didn't mean to, but her balance was decent and she was learning.
"It's time to go home," I told the girls. Looking at Cristiana, I asked, "Would you like to show Mommy what you can do?"
We walked back to her house, Mommy came out and Cristiana rode sort of magnificently and sort of straight for 10 feet and then she and her bicycle collapsed on the sidewalk. My bicycle teaching career apparently had come full cycle. A lesson or two more at the most, and she would be on her way to being a whiz, I thought. My work was done. Four grandkids, three of them bike riders. Not a bad average, but it still bothered me that Daniella wasn't up to speed with the others.
Two days after Cristiana fell on the sidewalk, she was back on her bike. This time with her daddy as the teacher. Jack coaxed Daniella into getting on her little sister's bike, and she managed to pedal a few feet before slapping her feet on the concrete to keep from falling. Ah, she was interested after all.
The following Sunday, two girls, two bicycles, and one grandpa returned to the school training ground. In less than an hour, Cristiana was making fine turns and smiling as she pedaled by. Her older sister got starting pushes from Grandpa along with suggestions on how to position the pedals before you start out on your own. She kept working and working at it by herself.
When the sisters returned home, Mommy and Daddy came out of the house and both little sister and big sister showed their stuff. There were no falls, no skinned knees. No one was more pleased than Grandpa. He was four for four. Finally.
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