Yesterday J and I went to Arnold Arboretum to walk and take pictures: a change from our original plan to go to the Museum of Fine Arts. We changed plans partly because the Red Sox played a day game yesterday—the T from Newton is always packed with Red Sox fans on game days—and partly because yesterday was the last day for the MFA’s popular Samurai exhibit, and we had no desire to fight last-minute crowds queuing to see an exhibit we’d seen back in April. But more than anything, yesterday was a clear, sunny, and mild summer day, and it seemed a shame to waste even a moment of it inside.
We weren’t alone in our thinking, as the arboretum was alive with picnickers, dog-walkers, and families with strollers. There were children on scooters and children learning to ride bicycles, including one little girl whose pink training wheels lay on the side of the road, castoff, while she walked astride her bike, standing on two feet and crying, afraid to take the next step of actually sitting on the bike and pedaling. “You’re doing great,” I remarked as J and I walked by, figuring every little bit of encouragement would help. It’s a scary step to go from the known stability of training wheels to the wobbly uncertainties a grown-up bike: what felt like an exhilarating rush when you rode with training wheels feels like pure recklessness—far too fast and far too wobbly—when you’re riding without.
I’ve never taught a child how to ride a bike, but I sometimes feel like I’m doing something similar with my literature and writing students, who sometimes cling to the known security of how they used to write papers back in high school (for my undergraduates) or back in their undergrad days (for my grad students). If you’re comfortable riding with training wheels, trying to ride a bike without them seems a lot less fun, given how much attention you have to pay to things like balance and speed and steering. But once you’ve faced (and cried your way through) the transition to a grown-up bike, you’d never dream of going back, part of the thrill of riding being the way your body eventually finds its own automatic equilibrium. Where once you had to think about steering, eventually your bike seems to know automatically where you want to go, and it goes there.
This is, ultimately, the place I’d like my lit and writing students to arrive: a place where making an argument—having something to say and then saying it—comes naturally, automatically, the pen on the page (or the fingers on the keyboard) naturally expressing the thoughts in mind. There is a beautiful fluidity in riding a bike or writing a well-argued essay, but balance doesn’t come by accident. Instead, you have to weave and waver and wobble before you can ride (or write) a straight, sensible line. Pedaling a grown-up bike takes a lot of practice, and so does crafting a mature essay. At first you rely heavily upon your training wheels, and eventually you cast them off, the experience of wobbling and even falling being the only way you can learn to trust the equilibrium of your own inner ear.
Click here for more pictures from the Arnold Arboretum: enjoy!