Tuesday, February 06, 2007


I needed to think. As some of you have written, bodies of water make good places for reflection. No pun was intended, but I'll take them where I find them. This isn't actually a normal body of water. It's a city park. We call it Bryant Park in the summer and Bryant Lake in the winter. This park has the mixed blessing to be located at the confluence of the Willamette and Calapooia ( cal-a-poo-ya ) Rivers. Replacing grass is an annual budget expense for Public Works. Somehow a small patch of sunlight made its way through the clouds. Perfect setting for thinking. Sometimes I sits and thinks, sometimes I just sits. This time I was thinking.

The thing I was contemplating was instigated by a man who calls himself "Buzzard".

Before leaving for Orlando I'd spent the weekend participating in and conducting some training for some of our top instructors. We were in Portland, our Big City. The training itself isn't really important to the story except for providing the context of my dilemma. Normally, as instructors, we interface directly and continuously with the students. In this case, the setting was more like student teaching. Different instructors had varied assignments during the weekend. There was a lead instructor who was the constant face of our program. The rest of us drifted in and out as the weekend progressed.

Our student shows up for the first night of class. Looking at him invokes the typical "biker" stereotype. I can freely say this as he was working very hard at presenting the image. The man's about my age. ( no "old guy" comments, please! ) Hair is in a loose ponytail to his waist. Beard is full and comes to the bottom of his breastbone. Clothes and tattoo's complete the picture. Oh yeah, the novelty helmet he carries dots the "i's" and crosses the "t's". We are told that Buzzard has many friends who belong to the Hells Angels. The only reason he's here is because his bike is too big for the DMV test. The bike is straight out of some custom shop and has something like a nine foot wheelbase. It's amazing that a bike with a raked-out front end like that can even turn at all.

His image and loudness don't put me off. I've physically subdued and arrested bigger and badder men than him. I'm not much for custom bikes and the people who build them but that's not it, either. As an instructor I've worked quite hard on being impartial to my students. That's been a gargantuan task, let me tell you. I hold deep convictions and I'm not shy about expressing them when it's appropriate. When I'm working with a group of students or training instructors I let it all slide. Pass on the little stuff and concentrate on the big picture. It's all about teaching people how to take care of themselves on two wheels.

I guess that's really where I choked in this particular situation. For whatever reason, our student wanted to get "legal". He was using our class to meet that objective. If a student successfully passes our class, the completion card is a "get out of testing free" card with DMV. As an instructor, there's so much more to it than that. I'm not here to get people endorsed. That's a side effect. My perceived role is so much bigger. For me it's not about pass or fail. It's about the discovery. It's about trying to influence attitudes. It's about teaching survival skills. It's about taking responsibility for ourselves out there. Part of the discovery might be that a person just doesn't belong on a bike in the first place. Score. At least they found out in a safe environment.

This student seemed poised to ignore every bit of wisdom we were going to try to impart. The bike has straight pipes. His gear was minimal. What he shared with us led me to believe that he had already formed his beliefs about riding and nothing was going to change them. In the classroom he was vocal about expressing his opinions on things. Most of those were in direct contrast to what we hold dear. He wasn't actually obnoxious, just insidious. I took it as a personal insult.

That's really the horns of my dilemma. In this case I didn't have to deal with him directly. I was responsible for the bigger picture of training instructors. Buzzard was incidental to my purpose. Still, it gave me pause. How would I have treated him if he were actually my student?

Would I have decided that he was so "set" that there wasn't any point trying to reach him? Since he would require extra effort to "sell" would that effort be better spent on the other students? Would it be right to short change 11 in order to try to reach this one? Should I let him sink or swim on his own?

On the other hand, would it be "just" to write him off? How would I be able to determine if I had actually reached him on some level? You just never know what a person will take with them.

What made this a basis of reflection in the first place is that I've never really been faced with a situation so blatant before. I've never felt so personally insulted by a student's attitude. It was a frontal assault on everything I hold dear. Gear versus no gear. Hardcore commuter versus recreational bar hopper. Working hard to develop real skills versus posing. Countering our teaching with his own opinions in front of the rest of the class.

After gazing out over the water for a long time I got my answer. In the second picture you'll see some dark spots in the water. Those are ducks. One of them said "Quack!". Another answered with "Quack, quack!!". Wisdom from the beaks of waterfowl. Things are what they are. There's a natural order in the universe. Ducks and geese. Serious riders and poseurs. Sometimes we can change things. Mostly we can't.

I decided I would have treated this man like any other student. It would be up to him what he took away or didn't. Like my wise Grandfather used to tell me,

"You can lead a horse to water but you can't shoot him in the head!"

By the way, he didn't pass. All his deeply entrenched bad habits betrayed him.

Miles and smiles,



Aaron said...

5 of 15 passed in my MSF course. (I'd like to point out that I was one of the five, heh.)

There were a whole lot of folks that didn't belong on a motorcycle and a few of those already owned one. I think you handled it well, even if you didn't take several opportunities to use him as an example before the rest of the class.

If you're gonna be dumb, you better be tough! :)

Allen Madding said...

I always try to look at folks and figure out what I can learn from them. Occassionally I come upon someone that seems to serve as a really good bad example. He may have gained nothing from the class, but I'm sure the class at elast gained something from him. If nothing more than to think about how NOT to approach motorcycles. Then again maybe flunking the course will give him pause.

My brother was convinced for years that wearing seatbelts was the stupidest idea ever. He would quickly tell you that he would rather be thrown clear of an accident. At the time I was racing stock cars and working as a volunteer fireman/EMT-I and he was drag racing. I would continue to ask him, would you want to be thrown clear of your race car at 150 mph? And, why do you wear your 5 point harness in the race car? It never sunk in with him. A few years later his wife rounded a corner on a two lane country rode and a large dog was in the middle of the highway. She swerved to miss the dog, hit a culvert, and the truck catapulted in the air clipping trees 20 ft up. The impact literally peeled the side of the truck off. She knocked the rear window out behind the driver's seat with her skull and she impacted the A-pillar on the passenger side with her face. She ended up with a broken back.

Her accident taught neither of them anything. They continued to stuff seatbelts under the seat. A couple years later, I get awoke at 2 am on a Sunday. The nurse on the other end of the line informs me that my brother has been in an accident and is being transported to the local trauma center. As it turns out, he fell asleep on a curvy road. The truck went off the shoulder. He woke when he heard gravel hitting the fenders, startled, snatched the steering. The truck turned sideways in the highway at 60 mph. The tires sidewalls flexed, the wheels bit into the asphalt and the truck began flipping. He was found 60 feet from the wreckage lying on the windshield. He had been thrown clear. He had significant amounts of glass and gravel imbedded into his shoulders and a broken neck. His two passengers who were asleep in the back seat received minor cuts and abrassions and were not thrown from the vehicle.

After 6 days, he awoke from his coma and while he laid flat on his back in a halo device. I revisited seat belts and his theory of being thrown clear. Fortunately, he did not injure his spinal cord and did not suffer paralysis.

The good news is that he now wears a seatbelt and strongly encourages others to wear seatlbelts.

It's a shame, but perhaps Buzzard may have to learn the hardway as well. Having gravel dug out of your forearm is not fun. Leather is hot in the summer. I'll sweat and enjoy my skin :)

balisada said...

If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to be a horrible warning. -Catherine Aird

Years ago a photo circulated the internet that featured the "Home Depot Car".

Essentially, it was a photo someone took of a Nissan Sentra loaded up with a 2 foot stack of plywood, a 2 foot stack of 2x4's (this was loaded on the roof of the car and had slipped. The thin twine that was fastened like a spider web to various parts of the car had apparently snapped). Not visible was the 10 bags (80 pounds each) of concrete in the back seat.

I printed the photo with the quote and arrows to various parts of the photo and displayed it in the Learning Center where I worked. The employees were interested because they were all very safety minded, and found the photo fascinating. I was always printing copies of the poster for folks wanted a copy of an example of a horrible warning.

So, I suppose from the dudes perspective, his habits were valid because he was still alive, but he would probably not believe that he was just lucky.

Most likely Home Depot warned the folks in the Nissan that it was not a wise decision to load their car up like that, but they did anyway.

And from their ignorance comes our learning possibility.

Combatscoot said...

Sorry you had to deal with that, but I believe you did uphold your responsibility. Glad I am, that Buzzard didn't pass the course. The sad part is, he'll probably be caught DUI one night outside a bar, with no license, or end-up in a horrible accident.

irondad said...

That must have been some group of students! Congratulations to you. I never use a student as a bad example to the other students. Next thing you know, the students are going to be wondering what I'm saying about them when they're out there. Not too good for confidence!

You're right, I'm sure many of the other students were quietly sizing things up. I'm sorry about your brother's suffering. Even if someone seems to bring pain upon themselves, I still feel for them. That's why I spend so much time teaching new riders. I try hard to reach them. Eventually I have to let them stand or fall on their own, hard as that may be.

I saw that photo of the little car. It's amazing but the only method for some folks seems to be "learn by burn"!

I seriously wish Buzzard the best. It's his choice where he goes from here. Here's hoping he chooses well.