Putting on the Brakes

  • David Hoffman

    I learned how to ride a bike using the hit and miss technique—I hit a lot of objects and just barely missed hitting many more.  It’s not that I didn’t have good balance; it’s that I didn’t really understand brakes.  My dad, never a believer in training wheels, would hoist me onto my red Schwinn, hold onto the back of the seat so that the bike didn’t fall, and then push and release the clunky two-wheeler shouting words of encouragement as I expertly steered into a tree, fence or, if my braking was particularly poor that day, a brother or sister.

    One of the two evergreens framing our front porch had a permanent tilt thanks to my inability to stop the bike. My neighbor’s hedges caught my fall many times and acted as a natural kickstand as I got up off the ground and brushed thorns and leaves off my clothes.  Once, my dad sent me pedaling down our long driveway, across the street and up the Peterson’s even longer driveway. That journey ended when my bike hit the Peterson’s garage door head on. 

    I could pedal, steer, but could not reverse the downward motion of my feet to cause the bike to come to a halt. Who knows if hand brakes would have been easier?  My bike had foot brakes, and I was brake-challenged.

    My father was convinced that with practice and a lot of unobstructed space, I would eventually learn how to stop the bike without jumping off like a cowboy about to wrestle a steer to the ground.  His plan:  1) Take the boy to the giant Lewis and Clark Junior High School parking lot, 2) Have the boy practice braking on the soft, black asphalt where all spills would be painless and, 3) Have the boy return home a hero, no longer a threat to human life and tree limb (or was that tree life and human limb?). 

    My dad’s plan worked—for a while.  I would pedal for a small distance, position the pedals for some braking action, lift a small twitching foot off the rubber bar, and then, with the action of one who is about stomp on an annoying bug, slam my Red Ball Jet sneaker down.  The bike would stop.  I would slip off the seat.  I would plant both feet on the ground while straddling the bike.  Success. 

    Call it overconfidence.  Call it lack of experience.  Call it a geological joke waiting to unfold.  What my dad had not figured into his plan was the school’s location.  Yes, the Lewis and Clark parking lot was indeed a very forgiving surface on which to practice bike braking.  But it was also perched on top of an extremely steep and high hill.  We called it Hazard Hill.  When it snowed, we would get on our sleds and metal saucers and fly down its slope at break neck speeds.  In the winter, Hazard Hill was a thrill-seeking kid’s dream.  In warmer weather it was a brake-challenged bike rider’s nightmare.

    My story is all downhill from here—literally.  My dad pushed his bodacious braking boy one last time.  I pedaled and pedaled, faster and faster.  I was going to test my newly found skill at warp speed.  Perhaps I was concentrating too intently on my feet and pedals.  Perhaps I was distracted by visions of the neighborhood kids cheering as I returned home a fully competent bike rider.  Perhaps it was simply my time to be humbled, tumbled and crumbled.  All I remember is hearing my dad scream, “Brake, brake, brake!”  I also remember the bike jumping the curb and . . . well, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.  My dad refers to my bike and body’s tangled descent as tumbleweed-esque.  Someone at the base of Hazard Hill looking up at that moment might have thought he was witnessing an extreme sports stunt.  If Hollywood had been casting a Road Runner and Coyote movie that day, I would have surely landed the role of Coyote thanks to my stellar performance of falling down a steep incline and surviving.

    I was carried back home and laid out on the living couch.  My mom cuddled me and nursed my wounds.  My dad retrieved my mangled metal monstrosity.  My brother sent word out to the neighborhood kids that Evil Kneival was alive and well and bleeding at the Hoffman house. Anyone owning Band-Aids stock would have seen its market value soar in the ensuing weeks thanks to my falling fete. 

    I recovered.  I became a proficient biker, but I never really perfected the art of braking.  In driver’s education, my instructor always scolded me when I took corners too fast.  “Use-your-brakes-for-goodness-sakes-Hoffman,” Mr. Vandetti would shout cowering in the passenger seat.  

    When it comes to work, I’m still trying to figure out how to put on the brakes. Finding the right balance between work and home has never been easy for me.  This is true for many people.  Right here at Island Park, staff put in endless hours before and after school preparing lessons for students, partaking in professional development, planning events, grading papers, attending meetings, and what not.  And lest we forget the Herculean efforts of the PTA, parents and community members who have spent endless hours planning, chaperoning, raising funds, room-parenting, serving on committees, and partaking in all other forms of volunteerism.

    As we rapidly approach the end of the school year, my hope is that we can all put on the brakes, slow down, and enjoy the summer.  Here’s wishing you and your family a fun and relaxing break.  May the wonders of nature, the transforming power of books, and some quality play time keep you and your children entertained for hours on end.

    Finally, here’s wishing continued success to our wonderful fifth graders.  Their educational journey will soon take them to new locations and present them with new challenges.  As their fast-paced lives become even more hectic, I hope that they will find the time to occasionally put on the brakes and marvel at who they are, what they have achieved and the amazing opportunities that still lie ahead. 

    Thank you staff, students and families for a terrific school year.  I truly can’t thank you enough. Your work, support, and incredible kindness are greatly appreciated and heart-felt.  I will see most of you in September when, again, we will ease up on the brakes and move full speed ahead.