As a nineteen-year-old I harbored a deep, unutterable secret: I could not ride a bicycle.
I had tried to learn. I’d ridden around with training wheels. I’d pedaled as my father held onto me. I’d tried when I was five, then six, then nine, then secretly, early in the morning, in a deserted parking lot where no one would see me, when I was thirteen. But I just could never do it. I was a good swimmer and runner; I was a very capable driver. I couldn’t ride a bike.
It became my secret handicap in elementary school. I’d stay home sick on bike safety day; I’d avoid going over to Gabriela Bernstein’s house because once I had seen six bicycles in her garage. When my brothers really wanted to upset me, they’d casually mention the word “bicycle” and I would immediately, shamefully retreat.
Not being able to ride a bike seemed, at one point, the initial failure that would forever propel me downward. In the third grade my teacher Ms. Morall hated me. She accused me of never paying attention in class; she called me a “space cadet” and the other children would laugh. I was a “space cadet” on the playground. We had to do an exercise called the Mad Minute in which we were to perform a number of simple arithmetic problems in 60 seconds. At my best, the Mad Minute took me 16 minutes. I did so poorly in math that Ms. Morall made me leave her classroom during math time every day to go down to the dank, concrete basement with only four other children to do “special math.”
Not only was I an utter failure at math and bike riding, but I was also an offensively poor flutist. During our mandatory music lessons at Mason Rice Elementary School, whenever I would start playing the flute, despite trying very hard to concentrate, my music teacher Mr. Fox would yell at me and tell me that I needed to pay attention to the music. I couldn’t figure out why he continued to yell at me when I thought I was paying attention to everything he said.
The next year we moved and I went to a new school. My teacher Ms. Zinner took a real interest in me. Instead of sending me to remedial math classes, Ms. Zinner had my parents take me to a neurologist. After a couple of trips to the hospital in which a very nice Swedish woman attached wires to my head with what seemed like toothpaste and asked me to take a lot of deep breaths, I was diagnosed with juvenile absence epilepsy.
The doctors explained to me that I was having absence seizures every day in which “my brain was turning off for a couple of seconds.” This made it seem like I was always spacing out from a conversation, or a math problem. It was sometimes induced by repetitive breathing, such as was required by flute players. If it continued, I would never be able to swim again, or drive a car, or — I cringed to even hear them acknowledge it — ride a bike.
Thence commenced a series of medications that made me, alternately, too fat and too skinny, manically happy and oppressively sad. I felt like Alice eating the cake that made her suddenly too big, then as suddenly too small. I cried when I didn’t feel sad. I binged for a few months, then I stopped eating altogether for a few more.
I went to the hospital periodically to get the wires and toothpaste stuck to my head. Then one day, when I was in the eighth grade, the nice Swedish woman told me I was cured. No longer epileptic. I could stop taking the medicine.
In time, I found an equilibrium with my mood and eating habits. I found sadness on bad days and happiness on good ones. I ate when I was hungry. I started swimming again. Eventually, when I was 16, I learned how to drive a car. But as I got older, my deepest childhood secret only got deeper. I still couldn’t face the shame of going outside to learn how to ride a bike, at the risk of being seen by any other human being. When my parents would occasionally ask to teach me, I would beg them never to mention the matter again.
It was not until the summer before my junior year of college that I found the courage to learn. I had heard of a woman in Somerville who taught adults to ride bikes. Her name was Susan McLucas. She lived in an old house with eight other people who were not her family members. She was in her sixties. She was always talking about what she had heard that morning on Democracy Now.
So one hot August day, I piled my mother’s bike in my pick-up truck and drove to Susan’s house. There were two other students there that day, one in her twenties and the other in his thirties. Susan gave us kneepads, elbowpads, and gloves. We went to a parking lot in the middle of Davis Square where absolutely everyone could see us. And there, slowly, painfully, over four sessions, I learned how to let gravity pull me down an incline, how to give myself permission to fall — the elbowpads helped in this respect — how to pedal and pump and change gears and brake and, finally, when passing a group of teenage boys calling to me in my kneepads and clumsy helmet, “You a beginner?” to say, “Yes.” Unfortunately, I cannot attribute all of my shortcomings to neurological disorders or to side effects from high dosages of medications. Sometimes I have trouble with my schoolwork not because I’m having seizures but because I just don’t want to work hard; sometimes my trouble playing an instrument or sport is due to my own deliberate inability to concentrate. Sometimes I can’t work up the courage to try something I’ve previously failed at long after I’ve ceased to have an excuse not to try again. But I know now that the most difficult disability I have had to overcome is the fear and anxiety of failure. And I know that having conquered it once, I have the courage within myself to conquer it again.