There is a family in our church who makes bicycles, mainly kids’ bikes. They search for bicycles that have been outgrown or left to disrepair, take them apart, lovingly sand down the frames and carefully repaint in vibrant colors. They straighten out the cranks and handlebars and from two or three broken-down bikes create a gleaming unique masterpiece, pink with luminous ribbon bedecked handlebars for a six-year-old princess or matte black with lime green pegs for the twelve-year-old daredevil. Each bike is more than a reassembling of cast away parts – it’s crafted as a new story, the means to explore the world for a particular child or teen.
I teach a sixth grade Sunday school class, and work in the third through sixth grade department. I’ve known the stories behind many of recipients of these free bikes.
There is Abi, which is short for Abigail and woe to those who mistakenly spell her name Abby. I happened to do that – once. She has a habit of leaning dangerously far back in her chair, defying the hard tile beneath her. She also has a habit of grabbing a peer’s arm and “hugging” it, refusing to let go for minutes (it seems like hours). Those who know her look up at me plaintively, as if to say “Abi’s connected herself to my arm again,” and I give some teacher advice like “Abi, remember, we don’t touch other students,” followed by “Abi, we don’t cling to people,” as she swings off the arm of her peer to latch on to me. This, I suppose, is preferable to the times she slaps unsuspecting kids in the face, or punches their arm.
But then I ask Abi what she is currently reading – she’s always reading. She tells me and if I’ve read it, we discuss. If I’ve not read it, I ask for her review. These conversations are lively and intelligent, filled with literary insight and practical commonsense beyond the world of most eleven-year-olds. And in these conversations, I hear snippets of another story. She tells me she’s tired. She and her sister sleep on the living room couch because their dad sold their bed. She’s hopeful he’ll use the money to buy her new shoes, as she peeks her toes out of the threadbare ends of her two-sizes-two-small converse, but figures they won’t because he had to buy the Corona for a party last weekend. “He can’t disappoint his buddies,” she delivers like a maxim she’s heard countless times before.
She got a blue bike that sparkles like the night sky and fades ever so slightly into purple near the headset. It has a purple banana seat, which she loves, “ooooh, so retro!” and matching purple hand grips and basket. Abi tells me the basket is for bringing books home from the local library as she dances around on one foot, excited that she’ll not be stuck re-reading the same book for days.
Then there’s Elijah. The first day I met him he raced into class and slid under the table, barking like a dog. His younger sister showed up to mournfully inform me that he’d not taken his medication that morning. My husband did a masterful job of talking him out from under the table to engage, mostly successfully, in the class. The following week, Elijah limped in, slumped in a chair and stared into space while picking at a scab on his hand. We had no luck pulling him out of his stupor, even with the bribery of ice cream. He’d taken his medicine that morning. I didn’t know his full story, but I wanted to tell him to not take his medicine before coming to our class. We liked him alert, even if it wasn’t under control.
Elijah got a lime green BMX with matte black rims, cranks, seat-post and handlebars. He received it on a day he’d taken his medicine, but the bike managed to bring a flicker to his eye.
This year we have Carlos. Our Sunday school promoted one month ago, so I don’t know much of his story yet. In the four Sundays since promotion, he’s given me a different name to call him each week. There’s been Bruce (presumably in honor of Batman, given that he wears a Batman shirt every Sunday). There’s been Joe and Frederico. Last week’s alias was Homer (Simpson, I presume). Carlos is loud and talks out of turn. In the middle of class, he’s jumped to his feet and screamed, just to watch the other kids react. And he asks amazing questions, questions that show he’s thinking about things.
Each of the kids in our class has, not just one story, but many. In The Danger of a Single Story, author Chimamanda Adichie warns against defining an individual or a culture based on just one of their stories (2009). I don’t want to use one story to pigeonhole my students. Abi is more than the girl who ignores personal space, Elijah is more than his medication, Carlos is more than Batman. In The Rhetoric of Empire, Spurr warns against “idealizing” another person or group of people. We can be guilty of labeling another person as “that poor kid sleeping on her couch,” or “that kid who has to have his meds,” or “the practical jokester,” and we miss something so much greater – we miss getting to know the person.
I asked the father of the family who pieces together unwanted bikes for kids why he and his own children invest so much time into the process. “When you’re a kid, you just want that new bike for Christmas – it’s like the pinnacle of excitement in childhood. It’s freedom to get out of the house. It’s a ticket to the library or the park. It’s like a childhood gateway into all sorts of things.”
Perhaps it’s a chance to write another story about yourself.
Adichie, C. N. (2009). The Danger of a Single Story. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story
Spurr, D. (1993). The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.