The first time I babysat, I was thirteen years old. My neighbors were going out for dinner with friends and needed someone to watch their two young daughters. I had always enjoyed playing with my little cousins and other family friends, so I happily obliged. Plus, I would get paid, which was super exciting when I was thirteen (and even today). It was a little scary at first, as all things are in the beginning, but I caught on quickly. Little did I know that that first night would lead to close to ten years of babysitting neighbors and other families in the area. Early mornings and late nights, coaxing them to eat their vegetables and play nice with their siblings, always hoping there would be more laughter than tears. The girls I first babysat will both be in middle school by the start of school in the fall, and I still watch them and their younger sister from time to time.
When a new family moved in across the street, my older sister and I took turns watching the kids if their parents ever needed a hand. Eventually my sister went away to college and I took over. When I was still in high school, and for a year or two after, I also tutored one of the kids. He struggled mostly with math and English, so I would help him with his homework, make flashcards and mock worksheets, and spend time with him over the summer as he completed his reading requirements.
On the days we got through his work quickly or without much struggle, I would try to save a few minutes at the end of the evening so we could play a game. He grew up for many years as an only child because his two younger sisters lived with their grandparents on the other side of the world. He had siblings, but they were so far away, and he was not friends with anyone in the neighborhood, so he seldom had someone his age to play with outside of school. Even if we didn’t have time for games after homework, I knew that he enjoyed it when I was there. Sometimes we would both get frustrated over complicated problems or division or multiplication–him trying to solve the problems and me trying to figure out simple enough ways to explain them. Other times we flew through a review for a history or science exam. And when he came home from school with a good test grade, he would proudly share it with his parents and then ask his father to text me and say thank you.
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They say you never forget how to ride a bicycle. And, aside from very rare instances, I think it is true. Riding a bike is a big deal when you are a kid, but once you get older, it doesn’t seem all that important anymore. But even then, you still know how to ride one. You may be a little wobbly if you get back on a bike after six years, but it doesn’t take long to get used to it again.
My parents taught me how to ride a bike when I was young. I started out on a tricycle, moved on to training wheels, and eventually learned how to ride a bike with only two wheels. On weekends, when we still lived in southern California, we would pack up our bikes in the back of the mini van and go to the empty parking lot at an office complex. The street we lived on was close to a busy road and there were all sorts of hills, so riding in the parking lot was much safer and easier. After we moved to New York, I still rode my bike around the block every now and then, especially if I was hanging out with the other neighborhood kids, or at a nearby lake. Eventually, I stopped. I only rode a bike if we were visiting Nonna in California or if I were at the gym on a stationary machine.
Last summer, the family across the street welcomed home their two daughters once again. I was so ecstatic that the boy I used to tutor would finally have his sisters back to play with, to fight with, to grow up with. With all of the snow we had this past winter, I often saw all three siblings outside playing in the snow and shoveling the driveway (or trying to, at least). When the weather finally began to warm up in May, they played outside even more. One day, I saw the boy riding his bike in his driveway and on our street. And then I noticed that he was trying to teach his youngest sister how to use his bike. Though I don’t know her well, I know she is very quiet. I doubt she had ever ridden a bike before and I laughed to myself because her brother jumped straight into teaching her how to ride a two-wheeler.
He would demonstrate riding the bike slowly, up and down their driveway, then get off and hand it over to her. She was tentative as she climbed on, and for good reason. She tried to learn how to balance and steer and push the pedals the right way and not crash–all at once. “Don’t be afraid!” her brother would shout as he coaxed her from the side. When she came close to falling or tipping over, she would jump off the bike and push it away so she wouldn’t fall or get hurt. Day after day, I would see her and her brother in their driveway taking turns with the bike. He tried to give her instructions and encouragement. He patted her on the back whenever she jumped off or dropped the bike. He made a makeshift stop line with twigs in the street so the cars would be careful of his little sister. He accidentally confused which pedal doubled as the brake when pushed backward, which led to an innocent stomping of the foot and rolling of the eyes. Still, they kept trying and trying.
I was in the backyard last week when I looked over the fence and saw the little girl outside. I stopped to watch her. She had a different bike this time, black with pink trim. She held it steady, climbed on, and began pedaling. Her balance was perfect as she pedaled a few feet down the driveway and stopped, still somewhat unused to the feeling. She turned the bike around and did it again. And again. And again. Then she rode her bike into the street and pedaled up and down, back and forth, with the biggest smile on her sweet face.
Once you learn how to ride a bike, you don’t forget. Since people often learn how to ride a bike when they are young and impressionable, the act becomes stored in the brain–like tying your shoes or holding a pen. Through repetition, the act becomes so familiar that it becomes automated, so even if a long time has passed, your mind still knows what to do. I haven’t ridden an actual bike in over two years, but if you put one in front of me right now, I would gladly ride off with no problem. The same will be true for the little girl across the street one day as well. She won’t forget.
What I hope she and her brother always remember though, more than knowing how to ride a bicycle, are the memories of his kindness and patience in teaching her and the joy I am sure they both felt when she pedaled around for the first time.