It’s Christmas night, I am thumbing through some old college essays I wrote for English class long ago. Oh boy. These are truly god-awful.
When I first seriously began writing it was during my community college years. All eleven of them. My English teacher read one of my early papers and paid me a compliment by saying, “This paper is terrible.”
“This essay, it’s WAY too polished, Sean. There are NO mistakes in it. Where are the mistakes?”
“I don’t understand, ma’am.”
“I WANT you to make mistakes, Sean. I don’t want perfect papers, why would I want perfect papers?”
I was starting to think this woman had suffered a minor neurological event. A stroke perhaps. I expected to see Allen Funt walk from the back room with a TV crew and shout, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!”
She went onto say, “Write how you talk, and don’t be afraid to be messy, make a lot of mistakes.”
So I rewrote my story for this woman. An essay which was supposed to be about childhood. I wrote about my first bicycle. I was six or seven when I first attempted to ride a bike. My father’s idea of teaching me to ride a bicycle was:
1. Place me on a bike.
2. Drink beer.
Before he let go of my bike my father reminded me “DO NOT TURN LEFT!” Because we were on top of a hill. On the left was a valley that looked like the sloping descent of Mount Vesuvius. And of course, anyone who is familiar with situational comedy already knows what happened next.
I veered left. And instead of learning to ride a bike, I learned how to roll down 3700 feet of treacherous rocks and I lost forty teeth.
After that, I was big-time scared of bikes. Sometimes, I would even wake up late at night to check beneath my bed for bicycles. My father didn’t even try to teach me to ride anymore, he ended up selling my bike to some kid down the street. And that was that.
Until one day he came home from work with a big-wheel—a plastic tricycle specifically built for little kids whose mothers still powdered their butts. My father gave me this giant dork mobile and said, “I think this is probably more your speed, Sean.”
Then he winked at me.
I was not happy about this. There was no way that I was going to be seen riding around town on a toy like some toddler who still sucked his thumb. Which I have never done.
So my turning point came one day when my friend Johnny Wattly and I were playing outside. We had spent the day trying to catch lizards so we could paint them with nail polish. When Johnny was about to ride his bike home, I stopped him.
“Hey,” I said. “Can I try riding your bike?”
“My bike? You better grow some hair on your chest first, you big baby.”
But I was determined, which is why what I did next was done without any fear whatsoever. That’s right. I bravely lodged a GI Joe doll in a well-known crevice of Johnny Wattly’s body.
That night I begged my father for a second chance at riding a bicycle. And the next day he came home with a busted up Schwinn bike he’d found in a dumpster. The thing had bent tires, a screwed up frame, and handle bars that looked like they’d been beaten with a sledge hammer.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“This is your bike.”
“Where’s the rest of it?”
“We’re gonna fix it up.”
“Fix up what, a pile of bolts?”
“It’s almost a bike.”
“There isn’t enough of this bike left for a proper burial.”
“There will be when we’re through.”
So that’s exactly what we did. My father used his welding torch to repair the frame. We bought new tires, my father made new handlebars, we sanded it, and repainted it. When he asked what color I wanted my bike to be, I said yellow because I have always felt that yellow represents the kind of man I am.
When it was finished, we went back to the same big hill. And this time, I made up my mind that I was not, by God, going to fail.
Thus, with courage in my heart I leapt onto that bike. I gave my father the “okay” sign. I could feel the stars align in my favor. I wheeled away from him. And in a moment that can only be described as magnificent, I fell off my bike.
Whereupon I somersaulted downhill across 3700 feet of gravel and broke eighteen ribs.
But there is a moral to this story. The moral is: Yes, it took hard work. And yes, it took perseverance, but in the end I finally did learn to ride a bike when I was thirty-two years old.
So this is what I wrote about in college English class. My teacher read my rewritten essay and she was smiling. She used her red ink pen all over the dang place, mumbling to herself, “Wrong spelling, capitalize this, delete this comma, add a semicolon, change this, no, no, no…”
And when she handed my messy paper back I was fully prepared to walk away with my head down. But I was surprised. She’d written on the front: “Perfect. Now that’s more like it. I believe you are a true writer.”
And I never got a chance to thank that sweet old woman for making me half believe she was right.