Monday, May 15, 2006

Field of Dreams Revisited.

The reluctant students and the Patriot.

I want to tell you about the class I taught this weekend. In a post a few months ago I called the parking lots we teach in "The Field of Dreams". ( see February 7, 2006 ) This weekend showed both extremes. Dreams realized and not. Although only one dream belonged to a student. The other dream was someone else's.

Thursday night was the first classroom session. By the time I left home and went to work, rode from work to Salem, and back home again under the full moon, I had about 150 miles. A good riding day. There's a picture above I've called "Sophie goes to college". Sorry for the blurry focus. I was snickering to myself and couldn't hold the camera still. One of these days I should get a tripod. The reason I was snickering was that I was parked on the sidewalk in front of the Campus Security Office. We have to go there to get a parking permit for the evening. Like a little boy up to no good but getting away with it, I was sort of giggling as I was parked on the sidewalk where I wasn't really supposed to be. Not only that, but including one of their cars in the photo.

Actually, we have a great working relationship with Campus Security at the community colleges where we teach. I've always had them act like we're all partners in this venture. Their help can be invaluable when people try to park in our lots, etc. Thanks so much for that, folks!

The first night of class is just sort of an introductory thing. I get to meet the students, find out a little about where they're coming from, and take care of administrative things. The students have a variety of reasons to be taking the class. The most common are wanting to learn because someone else they know rides, using the bike to commute and save gas, and the good old "need to get legal" thing. This time I had a little variety thrown in.

There were 7 females out of 24 students. Two of the females were there because their boyfriends wanted them to learn to ride. This is a mixed bag. Sometimes the student catches the enthusiasm herself and a new rider is made. Just as often, the would-be rider really doesn't want to be there and doesn't have the physical skills to be successful. They don't pass and really don't belong on a bike. If it were left there, life would be good. I just always worry about how the "boyfriend" takes it when she goes home and reports.

This weekend our two females showed both sides of the coin. I also had a chance to speak with one of the guys, which was interesting. We'll come back to that later.

One female student was a lady in her late 50's with a big dream. I tried to take her picture but kept getting the back of her head. She was so engrossed in watching the other riders and trying to learn that she wouldn't look away. She also seems to be a little camera shy! Our gal's at the end of the line at the left showing us the back of her helmet.

The lady's name is Mary. Or, as she likes to be called, MJ. I use the word "Lady" with a great deal of respect. MJ and her husband suffered the loss of their son in Iraq. He was the 9th boy from Oregon to die over there. Their son was actually a little older than the typical recruit. He'd served as a helicopter pilot over several terms of enlistment. MJ's husband, Clay, is a fellow Vietnam vet. Here's MJ's big dream.

MJ and her husband are part of a group that attend the funerals of all the soldiers from Oregon killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Anti-war protesters have taken to showing up at these funerals. No matter one's stance on this war, people should have the decency to let the families bury their dead in peace. To counter the protesters, a group of vets on bikes rides escort. They call themselves the "Patriot Riders". This group numbers in the thousands. From the sounds of things, the turn-out at funerals is impressive. The riders fly flags and create a barrier between protesters and mourners.

MJ wants to ride with the Patriot Riders.

I'm all for it. Bikes are freedom machines. Everyone has something they want to realize from riding. MJ's dream is noble. It also means everything to her right now. There's more. A memorial to fallen Oregon soldiers is being constructed in a plaza at the State Capitol of Salem. The creation of the memorial looks to be spearheaded by a non-profit group founded by MJ and her husband. The memorial is arriving shortly in Southern Oregon. The plan is for a number of riders to escort it for about 250 miles North as it makes its way to the storage site.

Here's a link to the website should you be interested:

No pun intended, but a lot is riding on the outcome of this class for MJ. The odds don't favor her. The age and sex factor put her in a group that typically doesn't do well. MJ's riding experience is limited. She hasn't been on a bike since about 1990. MJ has shown me in conversation that she's wise enough not to go outside her limitations. If she fails she will accept it. I'm sure she'll also be crushed. I want her to succeed in the worst way. It's personal for me on a couple of levels. As a professional I have to put my own agenda aside. Although, I do determine to use all my skill as an instructor to help MJ find success.

An instuctor can coach, cajole, command, communicate and congratulate. In the end it comes down to what the student has brought to the table. The skills evaluation is all about what the student shows us.

We will leave MJ and go back to our reluctant students.

Here's a picture of one of them. This one actually took well to riding. Once she realized she could do it Mitzi started having fun. Once her heart was into it there was no stopping her. Mitzi transformed from a reluctant student to an enthusiastic rider. Mitzi was actually pretty good, too. We'll leave her with an honorable mention for her efforts.

The other reluctant student didn't do well. I wont't use her name or picture for her sake. After all, she didn't really want to do this and doesn't have the processing and physical capacity. ( what I'm trying to politely say is that she seems to be a 50 watt bulb in a hundred watt world ) This student was only here because of pressure from her boyfriend. In other words, she wasn't here to fulfill her dream. It was someone else's dream that involved her. Speaking of which, I got to talk to this person during a break on the second day.

This guy rode up on a big bagger of some well-known cruiser brand. He dismounts. The helmet is a novelty helmet. Standard biker t-shirt, leather vest, bandana, jeans, chaps, no gloves. His physical stature is short. His belly knows what the weather is like outside before the rest of him does.

Now, I've had a lot of experience in sizing people up. It's clear to me that this person is wearing his "biker" gear like a suit of armor. The bike is his step ladder, if you know what I mean. His girlfriend, and my student, is over by the bike. As I walk up I hear her telling him how hard the shifting thing is. He's true to form and telling her to try harder. I put on my friendly, professional, face with the steel gleam of a cop's eyes.

After introductions are made, the boyfriend and I have a little chat. I state this his girlfriend is trying real hard, but as he can hear, she's struggling with some things. Then I look him right in the eyes.

"I would feel much better knowing that if she decides this isn't for her that she will be allowed to decline with honor. If she's not comfortable with riding and she's pushed into it, she's GOING TO GET HURT!! I'm sure you don't want that for her, do you?"

The man stutters and stammers and assures me that she's free to decide on her own. Maybe it won't make any difference in the long run. The thing is, I've put it there out in the open. As predicted, the girlfriend failed miserably. I take a personal interest in each student's success. This time the soil wasn't ripe for the seed to grow.

You've been hanging long enough. How did MJ do?

MJ proved to be extremely coachable. Her physical skills improved immensely. She's not what I would call a strong rider. I would have no problem with using the word "competent". I'm comfortable with her working her way to riding on the streets. MJ has the foundation to build on. A foundation that her dream can realistically be built upon.

I didn't tell any of the students about their pass or fail status until the final debriefing Sunday afternoon. If they all pass I will sometimes tell them so they can celebrate and it takes some pressure off them. Otherwise, I wait until I do the private end-of-course debrief. I always try to arrange it so the students don't have any sort of clues who's passed or not. It's my own way of preserving dignity, I guess.

When I told MJ she passed, she smiled. Then she gave me one of the most crushing hugs I've ever had. MJ thanked me. I helped, but it was her heart and effort that led to success. For MJ the dream will become reality.

That's one of the things that's so cool about teaching motorcycle classes. Sometimes it's just more of the same pleasant pursuit. Last year I taught around 30 beginner classes. I saw 720 students in the first night's class and worked directly on riding with 360 of them. Multiply that by the years I've been teaching and it adds up to thousands of students. Most are going through the normal process a new rider goes through. Nothing out of the ordinary although each is having their own special experience.

Then you have weekends like this one. A rider with a big dream who gets to realize it. A rider who shouldn't be on a bike and is made aware of it in a safe place. Either way, the greater good has been served. I never tire of it. I'm teaching this next weekend. I can't wait to see what will develop as the curtain rises on the next act!

Miles and smiles,


Steve Williams said...


It's pretty obvious that you have a profound effect on the riders and would-be riders that cross your path. doing the math on how many people you have influenced in your riding classes is amazing. And your passion, caring, and respect for each person and the baggage they bring makes you a rare teacher. The world needs more like you in public schools, colleges, and ever other learning environment. I've been working my way through season two of Kung fu and I can't help thinking.... never mind.


Mad said...

I really enjoy the insights into your classes and your baby bikers Irondad. They make up really compelling mini stories.

We've heard of the what the Patriot Riders are doing even over here. What a good thing.
I am, and always have been, deeply anti this war but how low to demonstrate at soldiers funerals! That sickens me, to add pain to a grieving family is despicable. So well done to the bikers for stopping them.

irondad said...

Such high praise from someone associated with a university! I guess I do care and feel like it's really important if a student 'gets" what I'm teaching. Knowing what they bring with them helps me know how to best reach them.

Kung Fu, huh? Always act like you've never quite snatched the pebble.

I always love the human interest stories in magazines. I think we forget that everyone has their own little drama going on. It's fascinating to take a peek at what it is.