bikes

Tipping The Balance

I am surrounded by amazing creative educators and interesting people talking about ‘modern learning environments’ and what this looks like. I suppose that is where I want to push and provoke some conversations, because we seem to be stuck with ‘look like’ a lot. The focus and emphasis keeps being drawn into changing the shapes of furniture, open learning and staff spaces and increasing use of technology. We rarely get to ‘sound like’ and ‘feel like’ possibly ‘smell like’ which happen to be important relational aspects of learning. One special interest area for me is the realm of discipline. So as usual I have taken to the metaphorical to share some observations, and yes bikes are involved.

If anyone has learned to ride a bike, or swim you might recall the sensations and emotions that come with vulnerability. There is a delicate relationship between being control and feeling the pang of fear. It’s excitement wrapped in caution. As adults we occasionally are asked to learn new things that push us beyond our comfort zone but it is usually by choice and rarely does it mean learning something that puts our professional identities on the line.

But watching the process of restorative practices enter schools has all hallmarks of skinned knees, struggling for breath and feeling ‘out of our depth’ as a profession. Teaching and schools have been moving along just nicely with traditional practices of discipline and punishment for over a century. It’s a machine that everyone recognises and we generally get the mechanics of how it all works.

Learning to Ride a bike is familiar to many people – bit wobbly at the start, usually held by someone to get going, but the freedom gained was well worth it. Once you’ve ridden one you can pretty much jump on any sort of bike, same principles, laws of physics, maybe the shift in gears could be unfamiliar and mountain and road bikes do operate differently. It can feel awkward but you can adjust pretty quickly. I liken this to schools and discipline policies in general, you can move between institutions which claim a ‘unique’ culture but once you are ‘on and pedaling – it rolls pretty much the same. If rules are broken punishment is dished out – we’ve been riding this punitive machine for a while.

Then along comes the restorative contraption. It is more like a unicycle. We don’t generally see unicycles around, they are for clowns and performers, no serious-rational-real person would consider them just as adequate as bikes. They might even say ‘we need unicycles like a fish needs a bike’. Nevertheless teachers are asked to give up their comfortable seat of power, drive chain of consequences and handle bars of truth for what? A one wheeled contraption with no training wheels? And here is the real spanner in the spokes, no amount of experience on a bike will help ride this thing. It is a starting again, a stripping back to a raw relationship with gravity and balance, shame and vulnerability matched with accountability. No amount of watching, reading, analysing will help you ride one. Just getting on requires patience and perseverance, falling off is required, it is the only way to make progress – yet it feels unnatural and letting go of the stability of the wall requires courage and an understanding that without losing balance you cannot move forward. Then finally you let go and try one pedal and it feels like a mile. You start to get a feel for how the unicycle moves with you and go with it, zig zagging all over. Every subtle turn and shift changes the direction, you can even pedal backwards. So it is about giving in to uncertainty with adrenaline surging and mixing this with cautious anticipation for the next attempt.

To those on the outside, it appears unsafe, reckless, even dangerous. They might wonder where is the control? The direction? How do they steer? It looks awkward and clunky and many will turn away and say ‘I’ll stick to the bike thanks – at least I know how that works.’ A small group will persevere and take the risk of leaving the safety and comfort of the wall of familiarity. A few pedal strokes is exhilarating enough to feel like you are getting it. But the next time in might be face in the floor time, it doesn’t mean going backwards, learning is non-linear and with every painful fall there is a sense of progress, the body senses more and more how to move with this strange new (e)motion. Encouragement, support, laughter and shared experience allow those who continue to maintain their momentum. The wobbles will lesson and the flow will come, falling gets easier and less painful, in fact, direction comes through careful adjustments, a growing awareness of what works for you.

There is no skipping a stage, there is no way to short cut…just get back on… hundreds and hundreds of times. Eventually getting going will be less of a struggle and momentum will come naturally. The effortlessness is illusory, it masks the commitment and dedication, change in physiology with a new and unique proprioceptive relationship to rolling friction. But those who have tried to ride will recognise and appreciate the visual confirmation that ‘it can be done’.

Because the usual mechanics of power and privilege that comes with Authoritarian discipline have been stripped back, the time to get going restoratively does mean many will need gentle introductions whilst others will be ready to throw themselves into it. Both are fine, but recognising the kinds of support people need is something schools need to pay particular attention to when introducing restorative processes. Developing effective restorative practices takes time to develop and they only get easier by doing them. If there ever was a place for repetition in learning it would be here and particularly the skill of asking questions. However it is helpful to find creative ways to ask the same thing otherwise you run the risk of wearing your ‘mental tire’ out on starting in the same place all the time. You can get around this by rotating the tire every few weeks on a unicycle, or to get some alternative starting points to conversations.

One of the things I remember from learning to unicycle was how tired I felt, how exposed and vulnerable I felt. Bruised in places I never thought I could be (or should be) including my ego, frustrated, exasperated at times but also quietly satisfied with each tentative meter gained. Even scrapes and bumps are celebrated and cherished.
I am by no means an expert on a unicycle but having watched and taught over one hundred people to ride one I understand it is a process that has as many demands mentally and emotionally as it does physically. Fear is one of the main reasons people ‘get off’ and return to what is safe. This will always be the case. The irony is – the very ‘gravity’ of the situation is what enables these kinds of conversations to take place.

Finally, surround yourself with others wanting to share the same experience, laugh a lot, console, apply ice packs, laugh more. Expect to fall off then just get back on…again and again and again…

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Making The Gradient

I’m glad we don’t have to reinvent the wheel – it’s a pretty awesome thing very hard to improve on a circle. Bikes might be some of the most basic things with wheels. When riding you become aware of the terrain because your body is responding directly to the physical environment. There is no hiding from the elements or the hills. There are of course adaptations you can make, like adding gears, choosing a different route, sheltering behind other riders and exploiting subtle changes in conditions.

All this requires a presence in the moment, a form of mindfulness that is perhaps under recognised or appreciated as a way of moving through life, an antithesis of the future focused lives that capture our attention – getting there instead of being here. Cycling is classical physics wrapped up in a spiritual experience – my perfect package for delivering altered states of being. Moving from a bike with gears to a single speed has changed my experience of the terrain I have ridden for a decade.

Far from being a simple shift in exertion due to the inability to ‘change down’ there has been an opportunity to alter my technique, pay attention to slight changes in gradient even the texture of the road can make a significant difference to momentum. My relationship to wind has significantly changed where a tail wind is experienced as sheer elation and feels like having a rocket strapped on the back. Conversely head winds draw me to focus on prioritising reducing drag, while squeezing every ounce of power from each pedal stroke and recruiting muscles that thought they had retired.

When riding like this, the total embodiment and presence of being is inescapable and surprisingly satisfying. Other cyclists blast past – clearly going somewhere, they barely notice me (although I find that hard to believe on my giant jaffa) and I remember being that person who would chase down anyone who didn’t acknowledge me. Not anymore…I can’t…and so that acceptance of the limits has afforded me a new found peace, one that has translated into the rest of my life.

Coasting when things even out is cherished, a chance to catch my breath. I can look up and take in the wider perspective than just what is in front of my wheel. Ever vigilant though for shiny glistening objects that could bring that momentum to a halt. Pedalling too fast though is pointless, it adds little power and wastes energy without adding momentum, ‘spinning out’ is ugly. So – it’s about finding a pace that allows me to keep ‘over the top’ of my gear.

The terrain in life we travel might look the same but each of us navigates it in a unique way. What might appear flat to one person may feel like a slow grinding slope. Others might need gears and at times struggle to find the right one. It’s also fine to get off and push.

Stuck in a rut? – ride it out, bail, or bunny hop

I often hear people say they are ‘stuck in a rut’ but wonder how many of them have actually experienced it in the literal sense. I know its an oft used phrase but for anyone who rides a two wheeled vehicle off road – motor or pedal powered, the actual realities of being ‘stuck in a rut’ are far more interesting.

My initiation to mountain biking was in Dunedin in the early 1990’s as a student. No suspension, just a solid steel frame with no fancy bits. Signal hill was gorse lined and ruthless with deep ruts and unforgiving corners. One crash and you were squeezing red, inflamed pustules weeks later from which would emerge long black spikes like something out of a horror movie.

But learning to ride ruts was crucial. I remember the desperation and powerlessness as my bike slid into a deep one, pedals barely staying clear of the clay either side. I lacked the skills to bunny hop out and really had no idea – I freaked out and made friends with the gorse. The more I rode ruts the more I realised that being stuck in one was part of the adventure, a bit like life.

So here are some things I learned about riding ruts in clay that might cross into some metaphorical, mystical life lesson, mantra or not. First there were times I would be able to avoid them and if I fell in one I would relax my hands because any tension would result in fighting the front wheel, causing the inevitable. Keeping my eyes up on where I wanted to go helped to shift not just my visual focus but my mental focus was ‘there’s where I want to go rather than ‘oh no, I don’t want to hit that’. Surrendering control might sound a little extreme but certainly altering and adjusting my awareness and responses to what control was going to be useful. Ensuring my weight was on my pedals, keeping relaxed and trusting those great knobbly tyres would bite when they needed to helped me negotiate my way out and avoid a later date with disinfectant and an even later one with prickle extraction.

Being stuck in a rut isn’t usually so adrenaline laden, but a rut is a rut and sometimes getting out of one is less poetic – stopping, getting off and lifting my bike out was also a tactic I used. No shame – and definitely less pain.

Stuck in one gear by choice

My new single speed bike is beautiful. I think I might be ‘bike-sexual’ and will happily declare this openly without shame.
Emmet

Meet Emmet (yes named after the Lego Movie character)
There is something pure about riding single speed. It is a bit old school but the simplicity and relationship between the machine and the body is more direct. No gears means tuning into the terrain, technique, timing and toughness.

The irony is that I am used to having all sorts of comments and abuse hurled at me a cyclist. Some of it for just being on a bike but I don’t know that male cyclists get quite the same about of comments about the body parts making contact with the seat as women. It’s another ‘hazard’ one I’d rather not deal with but usually I’m so busy concentrating I just catch the ends of words and sentences, for example ‘*ice *ss’ or ‘**xy *ich.’

I’ve been riding Emmet for 3 days now and my whole world has turned upside down. Heads turn, men comment and not once about me. It’s ALL about the bike. I think I could actually be a fish on a bike and people would still not notice. In fact not only is Emmet complimented there is a genuine admiration and appreciation from some for the pedal power required to move up hill. This weird vibe I think could be respect, ‘I’m the Man’ now. Male roadies (lycra wearing speedy riders) usually look ‘through me’ like I’m invisible or not even in the same dimension but Emmet resonates with them in some way so they ‘see’ us together as something other than a woman on a bike. Their reactions have been refreshing, those usually serious cyclist faces break into grins, nods and finger lifts (cyclist wave). So perhaps, through Emmet, I transgender temporarily as a cyclist, I’m one of the boys.

That is how it seems after 25 years of experiencing those other comments as a woman. Kind of weird but I’m happy to ride along with it. Orange is the new black isn’t it?

Bring back bike sheds

It doesn’t matter if no-one rides a bike to school anymore, schools need bike sheds. If you are nodding your head while reading this then you are probably are of a generation where the ‘bike sheds’ is code for other things.

Some of the best and worst bits of learning happened at the bike sheds. People tried stuff for the first time, talked about stuff, planned things and some of us actually parked our bikes there. The conversations and activities that took place you hoped you weren’t caught for (although…parking your bike isn’t exactly ‘bad ass’). It was an exciting place where risks were taken.

Some of those risks involved gossiping and talking about others. After emerging from the sheds the unspoken rule was not to speak about it. Eventually the conversation would move on to something or someone else, the outcomes and power of the spoken word dissolved and was replaced with other things. This is in stark contrast to the online generation.

When there is talk about things being ‘worse’ I think what could be happening is an unfamiliarity with the context and the effects on the meaning and intensity of expression via social media and the digital age. You can go back to a conversation, add to it, exaggerate, share, create images add pictures – so the story grows a life of its own. Then of course the audience grows and all within a few minutes! The personal and private has become a public performance for popularity.

Back at the bike sheds, about the only thing written was the odd scratched love note, insults were generic – occasionally personal but were painted over, or obscured by more angsting. Getting ‘caught’ was a real possibility and that awareness was an invisible safety bubble as the fear told you instinctively that ‘if you had to talk about this behind the bike sheds you probably shouldn’t be talking about it.’

I’m hoping riding to school will make a come back for many reasons including the building of sheds. Bring on the next generation of shenanigans!

When it comes to the ‘crunch,’ some things are hard to swallow

Have you ever been eating something, chewing away, really enjoying it only to suddenly hear the sound of enamel on a disintegrating unknown object? It reverberates through your head whilst your mind races through various images of what it could be. There is that awful realisation mixed with the visceral need to expel the contents from your mouth but depending on where you are this might not be such an easy option. If you have a sensitive gag reflex, that will also likely be triggered and as the tears form in your eyes all you really want to know is ‘what just went crunch?’

I have no doubt almost everyone has shared this experience. I have chomped down on a range of nasties such as glass, snails (sorry but they are just not food to me),egg shell, fish bones and scales (but no small bikes), and the occasional small stone – which seem indistinguishable from brown lentils funnily enough. If you are expecting something to be crunchy it’s fine, there’s no surprise, but that instantaneous reaction via sensory cues is a marvelous indicator of just how quick the brain works to invoke panic and fear.

Politeness dictates that we don’t show our disgust. Kind of ironic when you consider some of the disgusting practices involved in food production but that is not for this piece. I am going to blend this literal disgust with the concept of disgust as an ‘unconscious response to the unfamiliar or uncomfortable’. Bare with me, it’s possibly going to be a bit of a dogs breakfast but lets see how we go.

I think our taste in food is much like our taste in anything, it is acquired and developed over time. When it comes to children and food, parents are often keen to help them explore a range of things and persevere multiple times until the reject button has been hit enough and the message is clear ‘don’t like it’. Generally it is more acceptable to expose children to different food than it is any other form difference such as race, culture, sexuality, gender identity, functionality (AKA ‘disability), etc . This is probably related to a belief about what is acceptable and harmful.
How many of us were tortured with broad beans? I swear they were toxic, they had to be, tasting like the smell of dirty socks. But it didn’t kill me, and whilst Broad Beans still don’t feature in my cuisine I can see the intent my parents had, ‘give it a go, it might not be as bad as you think, chew a bit more and give it some time you just might like it.’
Hiding foods within something else is a sneaky tactic. I haven’t been fond of mushrooms until friends cooked a variety I was unfamiliar with in a risotto and I was wondering what the smirk was on their faces as I expressed my delight. Once I realised my assumptions had been challenged I was willing to concede maybe I could accept mushrooms were ok.
I’m wondering a bit about other forms of difference that when ‘hidden’ actually enable the richer personal aspects of self to emerge and ‘flavour’ relationships. Instead of rejecting based on a perceived threat or ‘dislike’ our identities are able to flourish under more palatable ideas such as respect, connection, love, acceptance and honoring unique aspects of self.
If a form of difference is visible – that same instantaneous, unconscious fear/rejection response needs challenging from within. I would suggest that talking or communicating in some way breaks down barriers.
My friend Philip made this and I think sums up nicely how we can go about adding spice to notions of identity and representations of ‘difference’:

But here’s the thing. If I am happy to dine at the diversity buffet,let me; it makes no difference to anyone else. I accept others still want to gorge themselves on hate but to ‘force feed’ anything to anyone and denying them the freedom to be aware of other choices is unpalatable.

This is the tension we are left with and it’s a bit hard to digest. If we are talking about genuine disgust on a reflex level it’s possibly going to be ‘messy’ if someone is asked to swallow something they know repulses them. But then how do we develop a broad taste and appreciation of the wonderful flavours of the world?

I’m really hoping the world food shortage is not going to give rise to insect farming because the combination of spiky bits and chitinous exoskeleton are enough to consider snails a delicacy.

If it came to that sort of crunch – I might just have to eat my words. Now that’s food for thought.

The fine line between pleasure and pain

Learning to unicycle is nothing like learning to ride a bike regardless of whether you have feet or fins. Helping a 6year old learn to ride one is like a nexus of vicarious emotional and physical pain and joy. There is also only one way to learn – and that is to get on and FALL OFF…lots. It’s ugly and uncomfortable and I can speak from experience. No amount of verbal feedback or understanding the biomechanics and physics of unicycling will do anything to improve your riding of one. Experiential learning is powerful but is often overlooked as it side steps the expert knowledge of the teacher. It requires a back down of ego and having been a teacher for a number of years I can put my hand on my heart and say I have struggled with this.

Aside from the obvious physical challenge of learning to unicycle there is the grappling with the inner workings of the mind – particularly fear and doubt, they camp out rather comfortably for quite some time. Then friends of fear and doubt – frustration, annoyance and irritation join the party. Just getting on one without gravity giving you an ass kicking requires enough perseverance to solve a rubik’s cube (and I’m not talking about those insanely talented people who complete them in less than a minute!).

While all this is going on there is still the issue of moving. You see you cannot fake unicycling – it is a fully authentic experience. Perhaps one of the more curious effects is the perception of movement and time. People who have given it a go will probably understand what I mean when I say a few inches or centimetres feels like miles and whilst that might seem an exaggeration the joy and sensation of moving are exhilarating. I suppose it could fall into the realm of altered states of consciousness.

The compression of time is more intriguing. The pendulum can swing in the blink of an eye from an ecstasy to agony, screams of delight to tears of pain. Mind, body, spirit and life compete to imprint the meaning of that moment and this is where resilience emerges. If courage, determination, patience and acceptance are allowed to speak into that moment then no amount of skin loss, bruising of bodies or ego will get in the way of getting back on.

This isn’t just learning it is ‘know-ledge’ as unicycling itself is a beautiful metaphor for life. The only way to go forward is to be in a constant state of falling and balancing this with peddling. Even trying to stay in one spot still involves constant movement.

At the end of the day, it’s just the best leveller in the world. It truly does not matter who you are or how good you are at ANYTHING before attempting to ride one – it counts for nothing. You will be chewed up and spat out.

That is the grav-ity of the situation – this clowning around is quite serious business.