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Education

Bike, fire, plant, Tomoki Kurokawa, 2012. Courtesy the artist and NANZUKA, Tokyo. Via Artsy.

You Never Forget

At 36, a schoolteacher learns how to ride a bicycle from his former student, who’s still struggling to succeed in school programs that value order above all else.

This summer, a moody, recalcitrant seventh-grader from South Boston named Raheem taught me to ride a bike. I am 36 years old.

I did learn, technically, when I was in second grade. My mother promised to buy me a toy if I could make it across the playground at my school without training wheels. I did it, secured my prize, and didn’t get on a bike again for another 28 years.

When I was a child, I refused to learn because I was stubborn, and we lived walking distance from school and town. As I grew older, it was because of my perception of cycling as a culture to which I would never belong: the specificity of the apparel, the self-righteous attitude.

Lots of my friends ride bicycles to commute and for fun and adventure, and while I’m sure most of them would have been happy to teach me, I wasn’t ever going to feel comfortable learning from them. I didn’t want to be evangelized to; I simply wanted to conquer an old fear.

I used to work for Growing Edges, a nonprofit that helps children from Boston-based low-income families on their path to college. Among the easier ways to help students get to college was to get them prepared for and placed in independent schools—private schools, with tuitions in the tens of thousands of dollars and the facilities, small class sizes, and progressive and autonomous classrooms to match. Opportunities tend to abound for students at independent schools more so than at public schools—of course unfairly, but realistically, too. We knew how the game was played.

I advised the youngest cohort of students, who were in our program for 14 months—two summers and the school year in between—starting just after fourth grade. Like many similar programs that seek to simultaneously provide academic support for high-achieving students and teach them how to then seek that same support themselves, Growing Edges set the bar high. If students failed to complete an assignment, they were sent to PZ, which stood for “Progress Zone,” a more hopeful way of saying “recess detention.” If a student earned too many trips to PZ, his family was notified, and then brought in for a meeting. If the situation didn’t improve, he was dropped from the program.

Raheem (not his real name—most of the names of people and organizations in this article have been changed) earned a lot of PZs: 26 missing or incomplete assignments, all in his first summer. (The upper limit for a student was typically about 10 per term.) By the last week of the summer program, he saw the writing on the wall. Students—“scholars,” in Growing Edges’ parlance—were asked to write a letter to their future selves to read in the second summer, six weeks from commencement. Raheem wrote:

I had goals I’d like to share with you. My Goals are to go to Colledge, get into a new school, and to become able to advance past all obsticles. I’m nervous If I’ll be able to come back in the fall. The way things are going, I’ll get kicked out easily. I’m hanging on by a little thread that’s keeping me engaged in the Program. If I do stay, I’m looking forward to becoming a Graduate. My favorite things are Video games, books, caprisun’s, and I love to go bike riding. If you receive this message that means you’ve succeeded. And if you succeeded, at least you did better than me.

I still have that letter, of course. We kicked Raheem out a week later.

 

Raheem had had issues beyond homework: He could be moody, inappropriate, and defiant. We had conferences about academics and behavior with him and his mother three or four times during the six weeks he was enrolled. But he was also bright, intense, charismatic, and hilarious. He was quietly kind, especially to the classmates who seemed young for their age. I wanted Raheem to teach me how to ride a bike largely so that I could see how he was doing two years later, but also because I thought he would teach me without judgment. He wouldn’t take it lightly if an adult exposed a vulnerability to him and asked for help, even though that sort of thing had been so difficult for him at Growing Edges.

I contacted his mom, Shauna, at the end of last October. It took us three weeks to find a time for her son and me to get together, and by the time they pulled up in her minivan to our meeting spot near where I lived in Somerville, they were two and a half hours late.

Raheem and I had lunch first to catch up. He wore a flat-brimmed Bulls cap and a couple of layers in anticipation of the cold. He was taller than the last time I’d seen him, but still had that same round face with the unforgettably fervent eyes. Raheem was in seventh grade, his first year at Shine Academy, a charter school in Cambridge. He’d been at another charter school before, but this one was stricter.

There was an older woman learning to ride a bike, too, from another woman I’d seen there before, who calls herself The Bicycle Whisperer.

Many charter schools—tuition-free public schools funded at the state level with broad latitude to design and implement their own curriculum—have the same attitude that George W. Bush expressed about possible allies in his war on terror: You’re either with us or you’re against us. If you’re not strutting in your uniform, if you haven’t committed the acronyms of success to memory (P for prepared, R for respectful, E for engaged, and P for professional), if you don’t bring your A+ game every period, you’re doing things wrong.

Raheem was doing things wrong. Already, he’d twice earned demerits for forgetting to wear a belt, and he told me you could get them for not writing the date on your homework, for instance. Still, he kept naming things he liked about Shine: He had been placed in advanced math; the school had a sense of order; classes weren’t too big; he liked DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) and WAM (Wellness and Movement); he’d made the basketball team.

In the waning sunlight of a chilly November afternoon, we walked a bike I’d borrowed to the paved basketball court that I figured was as good a place as any to start. There was an older woman learning to ride a bike, too, from another woman I’d seen there before, who calls herself The Bicycle Whisperer.

The helmet I had borrowed had a tricky latch, and I stood there fussing with it in the cold. Raheem wanted no part in helping; when I asked him what I was doing wrong, he made a face and waited for me to figure it out.

Once the helmet was on, I mounted the bike, and he told me to guide it with my feet on the ground. Just as I was starting to tiptoe it forward, The Bicycle Whisperer called out to us that we should lower my seat. We did. “It’s still too high,” she insisted, and came over with a pocket screwdriver—and her business card, in case I needed her help in the future. As she left, I said to Raheem, “I’m pretty sure you can teach me as well as she can, right?” He smiled in a tiny, conspiratorial way.

Raheem walked beside me as I made passes back and forth across the court. After a few laps, I told him, “Just one more time, I think, and that’ll be enough for today.” He gave me another look, and said, “I could show you how to ride.” And then he got on the bike and glided easily, curving like a figure skater around the court.

I waddled another time or two more to demonstrate my resilience before we headed to the adjacent parking lot, where I made it, suddenly and miraculously, pedaling all the way across. When I came to a stop, even using the hand brakes correctly, I turned proudly to Raheem, who’d been jogging behind me. He stuck out his lower lip and nodded approvingly. “That was impressive.”

I rode with him on the T back home, down the Red Line and then five stops further on the Orange Line. As we sat at the station waiting for his mom, we talked a little about Growing Edges. I explained that it had been a really hard decision not to let him continue. I asked if he felt like the teachers at his new school cared about him, and he said they did, that sometimes they gave him breaks on his homework, withholding detention as long as the assignment was done by the end of the day.

 

It was another eight months before I saw Raheem again. The polar vortex intervened, and then the inevitably hectic end of the school year, and then my wife and I moved out to the hinterlands just beyond the suburbs of Boston, where we could afford a house of our own. It’s a far less walkable town, which meant that I’d need to redouble my efforts to learn to ride. I emailed Raheem’s mother.

Shauna replied, “Raheem has been having a very difficult year. He didn’t get a chance to play basketball much of the season and eventually stopped playing due to his behavior and the number of detentions he received for not completing homework or talking out of turn. I have been asked to look into therapy for him in order for him to remain at his school,” an idea Raheem rejected. Shauna wrote, “He feels he needs to set certain goals for himself and then come up with a game plan on how he will be successful in reaching his goal. It sounds like a great idea, but I’m not sure if he will truly put the effort into doing better.” As Shine Academy administrators moved toward a meeting to discuss whether Raheem should remain there, she said, “I almost feel bad as if I made the wrong choice of sending him there.”

I have been skeptical of the tough-love brand of charter schools since my time at Growing Edges. It’s easy for them to focus too much on rules and consequences instead of on the needs of each child. I had encountered a principal at another charter school in the city who had been desperate to keep one of my other Growing Edges advisees, an absurdly high-testing Hispanic boy, from leaving for an independent school. She attempted to sabotage his applications by cajoling his teachers into writing questionable recommendations that fortunately didn’t match the glowing report cards they’d already written for his fall term weeks earlier.

There is no doubt that many charter schools meet their students where they are developmentally. Part of my concern with Raheem is that he’s so worried about breaking Shine’s rules that he doesn’t get the chance to demonstrate how smart he is.

There is no doubt that many charter schools meet their students where they are developmentally. Part of my concern with Raheem is that he’s so worried about breaking Shine’s rules that he doesn’t get the chance to demonstrate how smart he is. In the school’s 100-page handbook, “detention” appears 172 times. There are 48 bullet points to the dress code. And now, if he wanted to move to an independent school, the path his older two siblings took, he wouldn’t have the grades or recommendations to get accepted. On paper, he’s a troubled, unmotivated, African-American male. I described Raheem to one independent school admissions officer, and she said, “He’s gonna be needy, and in seventh or eighth grade, that’s tricky. That’s tough.” While she said it’s often the admissions officers who advocate to teachers and administrators on behalf of applicants who are something other than the ideal, “it’s not my job to mow them over, either.”

Raheem spent a lot of seventh grade in the office of Mr. Landsman, Shine’s associate principal. When I spoke with him on the phone, he did not expend a lot of effort finding the positive in Raheem’s performance. “He was very disruptive, disrespectful. He refused to work, refused to follow directions, refused to stop talking. He was suspended numerous times and we had numerous meetings with him and his mom, none of which really had an effect. We held an expulsion hearing, at which point he was asked to meet certain conditions. He violated those conditions, but his mom convinced us that he should be given another chance.”

Raheem’s struggles intensified as the year went on. Mr. Landsman said he was defiant in the classroom—“he fairly consistently needed to be removed from class”—and at home—“he basically refused to serve Saturday detention. He’s got a lot of anger issues.” I had heard some of this, though not the worst of it, from Raheem himself. Mr. Landsman told me, “Raheem doesn’t like to address what he’s done. He minimizes it, or blames somebody else for it.”

I called Teresa Rodriguez, director of student life and school climate at Boston Plan for Excellence, and described what the associate principal had said. “Well, he hasn’t bought in and he doesn’t like it,” she said of Raheem. Four demerits at Shine over the course of a week earn you a detention. “He could get that in a day by not putting his name on his homework in each class,” she said. (In fact, Mr. Landsman said Raheem had often earned enough demerits for detention in a single class period.) When she had worked in a different charter school and a student would show up without a belt, for example, “Half the time I would take my own belt off and give it to a kid and say, ‘Just shut up and put this on.’ You need to get him [an advisor] who can serve him in a way that makes sense for the person he is, someone who’s going to be a champion for him.”

Raheem’s seventh-grade advisor at Shine was in her first year there, and did not return for a second. Sixty-three percent of Shine’s student body is black, but none of the administrators are. Last year, there were only three black men on the faculty, one of whom was the athletic director. In the introductory video on the school’s website, the first word used to describe the students is “gritty.” It makes the student body sound like toughs, especially when it’s spoken by the school’s founder, an older white woman.

It’s hard to know who could effectively convince Raheem to buy in. He rarely sees his dad. At the end of this school year, when she needed a respite from his travails, Shauna sent Raheem to live with his father and grandmother, but there, he was mostly home alone. Since Raheem has returned to his mother’s, he has neither seen nor heard from his father, who has a history of making plans and then not showing up. “That’s where a lot of Raheem’s anger and frustration comes from,” his mom said.

“I feel bad for him,” Shauna told me on the phone. “He’s so smart, but with the issues he has around discipline, he’s not given the chance to sit in the seat that his older siblings were given the chance to sit in.” She acknowledged his responsibility for his own choices. “For some reason, he doesn’t sit well with structure. He’s defiant to it, even if it’s the right thing.”

Those kids often have to put up with a lot, and often do so quietly. They’ve been taught that calling out in class, even with excitement, is a punishable offense.

Would Raheem have been better served by being allowed to complete the program where I advised him, which would have attempted to shepherd him into an independent school? Rodriguez, who has also recently worked at an independent school, pointed out, “Independent schools require talkers if you’re a kid of color. They’re not good at eliciting you to participate.” In my own eight years of teaching at four independent schools, I’ve found that it’s hardest for those communities to understand their under-resourced students: students without computers or the internet at home, students who make meals for their younger siblings because their parent has the late shift, students who live with relatives and neighbors who did not attend college. Those kids often have to put up with a lot, and often do so quietly. They’ve been taught that calling out in class, even with excitement, is a punishable offense. Independent school faculty does not harbor a great deal of racial diversity, either. I have not taught at an independent school at the same time that a black man had his own full-time classroom there.

The chief advantage of a progressive independent school for Raheem is that their policies are often less draconian. Schools are able to adjust to the students and families they have, and when a student is struggling, they can offer resources and time before deciding that something isn’t working out. You won’t find a handbook with a list of consequences featured on many independent schools’ websites. I can’t help but think that that could have been a preferable environment for Raheem, but I also know that there are significant barriers to students like him accessing places like that: the cost, the admissions process, and independent schools’ squeamishness about accepting more difficult students and potentially chasing full-paying families away.

 

Raheem was not asked to leave Shine. Instead, he spent a few weeks of the summer making up the advanced math class he’d failed. I met him in Cambridge after class one day in July for our second bike-riding lesson. The school where he was taking the course was conveniently located near a Hubway rack, Boston’s bike-share program. “I know it’s not the sleekest ride,” I acknowledged as I extracted the codes for us to each rent one. We coasted around on the walkways and lawn of the public library adjacent to the school. I had to Fred Flintstone myself to a stop a couple of times, but even after the long layoff, I was markedly better. Raheem followed behind me, making loops of his own, stopping when I stopped, showing me how and why to shift between the bike’s three gears. Afterward, we walked through Harvard Yard on our way to lunch, past the lanyarded high school kids there for academic camp and the line of tourists eager to get their picture taken with the statue of John Harvard, and we ran into one of my colleagues. She asked Raheem how I was doing, on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being where I started and 10 being the Tour de France. He generously gave me a 2.

I practiced before our next lesson by renting a bike from a humorless teenager at a shop near the terminus of a rail trail in my area. When he brought out a bike that he thought would be easy for me to ride, I said, “What, no streamers?” He didn’t even smile. As I wobbled back and forth along the straight, mile-long stretch between the start of the bike path and the next road it encounters, I found myself wishing I had a sign that alerted the whiz of jockeys cranking past on their whirring steeds that I was just a beginner.

Our next lesson, in early August, began from Shine’s brick building in Cambridge. Raheem was taking a weeklong science course there in order to make up more work from the school year; he explained that the class consisted of being given a packet to complete each day. When he had finished, he could go. It didn’t sound like a great way to engage a student who had already struggled with the subject.

We picked up Hubway bikes again and toured through MIT’s campus. I pointed out the Stata Center as we passed. “It looks dangerous,” Raheem said, observing its squeewonk construction. From there, we pointed ourselves toward the Charles, passing Kresge Auditorium, where Growing Edges holds its commencement at the end of each summer. He had surely been there for his older siblings’ ceremonies, but neither of us remarked on it. (In fact, Shine Academy also holds its commencement there.)

“I’ve never biked anywhere like this before,” he said as we biked along the river, cooled by the breeze and idling between the sidewalk and the dirt-tracked grass beside it. It was the first time I’d been able to bike well enough for him to have fun, too, and he said as much when we stopped, hitched our bikes back to the rental rack, and he hopped on the No. 1 bus as it pulled up to the curb nearby.

For a minute or two at the end, we biked alongside each other, talking easily, and I had this vision that this is primarily what I would have done on a bicycle growing up.

For our last lesson, I met Raheem in the Back Bay, next to an Orange Line T stop. We ate at Five Guys and talked about his school. He was in the middle of his only two true weeks of summer vacation. He said lots of kids leave Shine Academy after ninth grade, but that he would stay as long as he found it “bearable.” I told him, “Raheem, I hope that wherever you’re in school, you’ll find a way to think of it as way more than just bearable.” He smirked, and I wondered if he believed that was even possible.

We walked down Huntington Avenue, past Symphony Hall, around the back of Northeastern University, to the nearest Hubway rack, in a student parking lot where custodians were power-washing recycling bins. Raheem and I headed off to ride around the Fens, a linear park designed by Olmstead as part of the Emerald Necklace. We didn’t find our way to the larger sections, opting instead to stay bound by the streets and construction to loops around the Muddy River area. We passed again and again behind the Museum of Fine Arts and by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; I told Raheem about Gardner’s eccentricities and the still-unsolved heist that took place there. Even though he lives within walking distance, he had never visited. He said his favorite museum is one he saw earlier this year, the Boston Tea Party Museum, an interactive exhibit aboard a ship docked at the Children’s Wharf. We traded stories about geese and swerved to avoid them when they obstinately stood in our paths. For a minute or two at the end, we biked alongside each other, talking easily, and I had this vision that this is primarily what I would have done on a bicycle growing up.

 

Raheem’s mom told me that biking with me was “the most he’s done this summer.” Other than attending summer school, he mostly hung out at home, looking after his two younger sisters. He’s been reading the CHERUB series, about spy kids, but in lieu of biking with friends, he said he’d been playing first-person-shooter video games with them online. But riding remains his escape. “He just loves it,” his mom said. “He’s free to do whatever he wants and rides wherever he wants to ride. No one’s yelling at him about it.”

The day after my sixth wedding anniversary, I rode a neighbor’s bike three suspenseful miles along the road to and from a nearby weekly farmers’ market, where I bought myself a celebratory bagel. That evening, the night before eighth grade began, I texted Raheem about my accomplishment, and that I had him to thank for it. “Congratulations it was only a matter of time,” he replied.

Three weeks into school, Shauna sent me an update me on Raheem. “So far things are ok. He has been getting a lot of detentions but more so for redirection [not paying attention in class and not following directions]. They are extremely strict but he seems to be completing his assignments & his grades so far are A & B.” The next week, she wrote, “I went to back to school night & discovered he has been missing assignments in Science class & his grade went down tremendously.” I suggested that she should not have to show up at school in order to find out when he’s struggling, and Shauna replied, “It’s hard for me to figure the school system out. Sometimes they don’t practice what they preach.”

I am still a wobbly novice aboard a bike. I haven’t fallen yet, and I haven’t gone faster than my timidity will allow; I haven’t taken enough risks. In that sense, it’s hard to tell whether Raheem is like me or like my opposite. Is he too daring, flaunting authority when it tries to intervene, or does he hide from possible failure, disavowing his own responsibility by saying, essentially, “I am who I am”? He still has to face school five days a week, and he will have to figure out how to approach it like he rides: gracefully, and under his own power.