When I get on my mountain bike, I like to imagine I have stolen it. The authorities are hot on my tail, and I’m on my limit knowing that I’m not made for prison. Now, I haven’t stolen my bike. But, I have treated my bike as though I stole it. I’ve neglected it. Hardly even washing her. It can be no surprise that she broke. The pedals started spinning as I walked her one day, and I figured if I ignored it and blasted through a few mud puddles everything would fix itself. Quickly, the chain and rear derailleur started binding up whenever I coasted. The fix itself solution didn’t pan out.
My first thought was that the pedals were the problem, or at least where they met the bike was the problem. A few visits to various bike chatrooms, and I figured out it was more likely a problem in the rear tire area.
Knowing this, my bike remained broken.
The YouTube mechanics made it look easy, so I figured no big deal removing the rear gears. I ended up loosening the axle. The gears didn’t budge. I called my dad. He informed me that there is a special tool to get the rear gears off. Who would have known? It’s a funky little thing, a socket with teeth along the ridge and a small rod protruding from the center.
I didn’t have one of those, so I had to order it.
A few days later my tools arrived. I bought a whole set. Better to have a tool and not need it than need a tool and not have it, I always tell my scowling and beautiful wife.
Popped the socket onto a ratchet and started loosening those gears. Before I knew it, I was sure I busted my ratchet. A nasty clicking noise inundated my workshop. I grabbed my phone to check YouTube. Was this nasty noise common? Nasty noise was totally common. Design feature. And, along the way, some savvy bloke suggested zip tying the rear gears together so they didn’t get all discombobulated.
With the gears off, my bike wasn’t broken anymore. It was a pile of scrap metal.
And, since everything on the internet is true, I decided to follow several pieces of advice to remove the axle so that I could clean my free hub.
No sooner did I get the axle off than little, tiny, impossible to hold metal balls start dropping like raindrops. The bearings were falling out! I moved to pick one up, and another would fall to the ground. It was like popcorn overflowing its steaming container.
I bought a sweet magnet at Lowes the other day, and I took that moment to remind my wife how it’s better to have a tool and not need it than need a tool and not have it. She didn’t scowl. She rolled her sexy hazel eyes instead.
Every time I tried to get those bearings back into the bike, they would shoot right back at me. It was as though a small, cartoon artillery man was in the wheel firing on me.
I decided I needed more grease. This was a decision reached on 2 accounts. First, I thought the lack of grease on the bearings might be a problem. Second, it was a good excuse to go to the bike shop and talk to a bike mechanic without my wife thinking I was clueless.
The bike shop had grease and a mechanic. Which one was more personable, I’m still sorting out. When it came time to discuss my broken bike, the mechanic demonstrated why he stays away from paying customers most of the time. In few words, he seemed to think the grease might work, but probably wouldn’t. Good enough for me.
At home, I greased everything up, replaced the bearings, the axle, all the gears, put the rear wheel back on, and tested it all out. It was WAY worse than when I started. I might as well have had a square wheel.
I called my dad, explained the situation, and he said take the disc brake off to rule out brake problems. I didn’t want to do that. Too much work. I knew it wasn’t the brakes. I adjusted them. They were fine. I told him I wouldn’t do it.
Next, I removed the brakes. No brake problems. I was right.
He said loosen the axle nuts. I said that sounds stupid. I worked like hell to get those suckers tight for a reason. An axle coming apart at 30mph would be a disaster for sure. I was right before, and I was right now.
So, I loosen the axle nuts and SHUT THE FRONT DOOR! The wheel spins. The pedals don’t move. The chain doesn’t bunch up. The bearings were packed too tightly. Dad takes the day!
But, this isn’t a story about bikes. It’s a story about learning and school, which starts Tuesday. I’m anxious, tense, and conflicted because for the next 10 months I won’t be around any learning process that looks remotely like the one I just described.
In fixing my mountain bike, I read thousands of words, analyzed their credibility and merits, implemented ideas, evaluated my work, watched many videos, overcame obstacles, talked to actual humans, discovered Fort William in Scotland, and wondered all sorts of things about how rear derailleurs work, gear ratios, the history behind how bikes and their parts came to exist, etc. In short, I learned a lot.
For those that think this is a unique learning experience. It’s not. It is the process of learning anything. It’s how Ken Burns produced The Civil War. It’s how Orwell wrote 1984. It’s how your electrician figures out where the short is in the circuit. It’s how this site became a thing. It’s how we grow as people and communities. A problem presents itself. We think about it. We try stuff. We fix some of it and make other parts worse. We talk to people smarter than us. We find out some smart people just seem smart and that some who seem dumb are the opposite. We get frustrated. We want to quit. We kick stuff. We swear, and by the end, we’ve created something that sticks with us forever.
In fixing my bike and relating it to you, I didn’t worry about the names of different parts—although I learned a lot of vocabulary. I didn’t stress about the test at the end because the test was never separate from the learning. Learning and assessment were constant and ongoing, and there was only one grade: a functioning bike. Timing mattered only in so far as I had to schedule bike repairs around my other responsibilities. This had the added benefit of giving me time to ponder, arrange and contemplate all the data that was flying into my brain. It was an intensely personal experience, and one that consumed me.
John Dewey envisioned schools as places where students got their hands dirty. Learning wasn’t a thing people consumed; it was an experience, a journey. As I head into my 11th year teaching, I have the same optimism of every year. I’ve learned a bunch from last year, and I’m ready to tackle the problems of this year. I’m poised to help students do real learning, and I’ve got all sorts of activities dreamed up in my head to make it a reality. But, I’m also a veteran at this point. I know what lies ahead is going to challenge all of that planning and idealism. I know at some point the pressure to “get through the curriculum” will sneak in and threaten those ideas of holistic, authentic learning experiences. I’ll fight the urge to push for task completion, but the system is big, and the system is strong, and every fighter’s hands get heavy at times.
11 years in, I’m getting tired of fighting.