Unlike many of my friends, I’ve never felt compelled to return to school and further my education.
It’s not that I object to classroom learning, although I will concede that sitting at a desk and listening to a lecture isn’t exactly my favorite thing to do.
It’s just that I have a hard time imagining what I would return to school for. Now that I’m older, time and money both seem much more precious than they did when I was 20, and I only plan to return to school if I have a concrete goal, some new skill or base of knowledge that I need to obtain.
Despite this aversion to school, last week I became a student for the first time in years.
I enrolled in a three-week bicycle-education course in Albany that teaches bicyclists their rights and responsibilities on the road, as well as some bike maintenance basics, such as how to fix a flat. I decided to sign up for the course because biking in traffic makes me nervous, and I know very little about the rules I’m supposed to follow when I’m biking on city streets. I don’t know the hand signals I’m supposed to use when making turns, for example, or how I should position myself in lanes. But these are things I’d like to know, and should know, and a bicycle-education course, taught by a knowledgeable instructor, seemed like a good place to learn them.
So on Wednesday night, I raced home from work, grabbed my bicycle, and headed uptown. This was totally new for me; I’m a recreational biker, and I usually just go down to the bike path along the Hudson River to ride. But on Wednesday evening, I pedaled northeast on Eagle Street, past Empire State Plaza and City Hall, cut through the Center Square neighborhood and Washington Park, then crossed over to the downtown SUNY campus on Western Avenue, where the class was held.
Along the way, I tried to follow the few bicyclist laws I knew, to get myself in the proper mind-set for class. And I managed to fool some people. When I stopped at a red light, a man in a van leaned out his window and said, “It’s so nice to see a biker who knows the law.”
“Thanks,” I said.
But what I really wanted to say was: “Sir, I have no idea what I’m doing. That’s why I’m on my way to bicycle school.”
I’m not kidding when I call it bicycle school. We students sat at desks. We received a pile of handouts, including a written, open-book test that we’re supposed to complete by the end of the course. Facts and figures were projected on a large screen in front of the classroom. We learned how many bicyclists visit an emergency room each year (about half a million) and about the dangers of potholes, railroad tracks and car doors. (When a car door opens into the path of a cyclist and causes a collision, it’s called dooring.)
We also shared our memories of our first bicycles, which allowed me to remember the blue 10-speed Schwinn I won in a raffle when I was a kid, and how much fun I had on it. This trip down memory lane was useful, because it allowed me to better understand my fear of biking in traffic. When you grow up in a small town, traffic just isn’t something you have to worry about. My friends and I used to think it was funny to scream “Car!” at the top of our lungs while biking on quieter roads, presumably because cars were rare and warnings seldom necessary. We also enjoyed biking down the hill near my house and outracing the dog who chased us. None of us wore helmets, and we always biked on the sidewalks.
So far, I’ve learned a lot in bicycle school.
But not all of the material is completely new to me.
There are the things I know but don’t even remember learning, such as the value of wearing a helmet and that bicycles belong on the road, not the sidewalk. I’ve written articles about bicycle issues, and I’ve also read Travis Hugh Culley’s interesting memoir “The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power,” about Culley’s experience working as a bike messenger. I’d never given bike messengers a moment’s thought until I picked up Culley’s book, and I soon found myself fascinated by this proud, adrenaline-fueled subculture. One of the more dramatic passages details the time Culley ends up in the emergency room after getting doored by a taxi cab in downtown Chicago.
Part of the reason I enjoyed Culley’s book so much, I think, is because nobody told me to read it, and I didn’t expect anything from it. I learned a lot, but all of that learning took place on my own time, outside the classroom. Which is where, in my opinion, most learning takes place.
I might never return to school, but that doesn’t mean I’ll ever stop learning. There are just too many books and magazines and museums, too many places to go, too many people to meet. I’m eager to keep expanding my horizons.
In the meantime, I’ve got to prepare for my bicycle exam — there’s a written test, and a road test. And you know what? They actually look sort of challenging. I think I’m going to have to study.
Foss Forward makes a weekly appearance in print, in The Gazette’s Saturday Lifestyles section. You can email Sara at firstname.lastname@example.org.