I will probably never learn to water ski. My husband will probably never learn to snow ski. There are some things you just learn to do as a child. It’s not that I couldn’t learn to water ski or my husband couldn’t learn to snow ski. But at this point we have settled into a life that includes neither and the chances are that absent some concerted intention we will never have cause or opportunity to change that. We’re both okay with it.
But what if that thing – the thing we’d never learned to do as children – were something more, shall we say, essential? What if we’d never learned to swim? What if we’d never learn to ride a bike? Well, if we lived in Washington, D.C. I might have an easy answer for you. The answer? We would take a class.
As it is, I learned to ride a bike (a pink one with brown flowers and a banana seat) when I was six years old on our dead end street with my dad running behind me until my balance was sufficient for him to let go. I have vague memories of it, but I’ve seen the pictures so many times that whatever holes were left by my memory have been filled in by photojournalism. But for people who didn’t have a pink bike, brown flowers, banana seat, and eternally patient father, there is a class that teaches adults how to ride a bike. I find the very premise of such a class inspiring.
Old dog/new trick clichés notwithstanding, there is something about learning to ride a bike as an adult that is surprising. For most people is is something learned as a child, or not at all. And yet there are apparently many adults (enough to sustain a class) who never learned as children, and are willing to subject themselves to the process of learning it now. They start on balance bikes (no training wheels, no pedals, and propelled only by “kicking like a frog” with both feet) just the way little kids do today. I have to imagine it’s not the most distinguished feeling. And yet they want to learn and are willing to do so, regardless of however foolish they may feel in the process.
In thinking about this I find myself impressed and inspired. I also find myself reminded of the fact that learning something new is typically not a graceful or glamourous process. Whether it’s riding a bike, driving a car, playing an instrument, speaking a foreign language, cooking, or painting – in order to learn we must first admit that we don’t know what we’re doing. We must make our shortcomings and inadequacies transparent to another person; a teacher. And we must let that teacher point out everything we are doing wrong without defense, all in the name of learning. Learning is not for the timid or the proud.
There are many things I don’t know how to do that I wish I could: speak French, crochet, grow another two to three inches. And there are skills that I once learned but have since become rusty from disuse: playing the piano, playing golf, speaking Spanish. But if I want to quash any of my inadequacies I will have to cop to them first. My age is not really the thing that precludes me from this. It’s the busy existence of a working mom with three little boys whose life doesn’t feel the least bit empty for the lack of these skills. And perhaps that is exactly why the old dog/new tricks maxim so often rings true. It’s not that we can’t learn as adults. It’s just that we’ve built a life without something and so we don’t know what we’re missing. This isn’t to say we must all learn everything as adults that we never learned as children. It is only to say that we can. If we want to, we can. If we need to, we can. Our ability to learn is as strong today as it was 20 or 30 years ago. We have only to come to a place where our eagerness is as well.