In March, campus was deserted, with only a few international students and some Hope College staff occupying it due to the pandemic. As unexpected as the switch to online classes was, I was oblivious to the fact that the rest of the spring semester and my summer was going to be déjà vu: déjà vu of learning how to ride a bicycle. Let me walk you through it.
On Friday, June 7, the massaging golden rays of sun gently kissed the surface of my skin as my braids vigorously flapped against the back of my head from the blowing breeze. My legs firmly and quickly moved in an elliptical cycle while my hands were glued to the frame. “I can ride a bicycle!” I silently screamed to myself.
In the twinkle of an eye, my right knee was in agony. I then quickly and subtly looked around, forgetting for a moment that I was in pain and hoping that no one had a glimpse—not even a millisecond—of what had just happened. I had it all worked out to two solutions in my brain: either I stand up and erase the whole scene from my memory or laugh at myself with the people who had successfully seen me plummet to the side of a tarred road.
“You are getting there sweetheart!” a bearded man with a stern but genuine smile shouted as he uncontrollably jerked his armchair, looking for a comfortable position for his abdomen.
“Yeah, I’m getting there,” I responded, as I chuckled, shrugged, rolled my eyes, lifted my body and then my blue bicycle in that order and left. “That wasn’t too bad,” I whispered to myself as I got back to our campsite where my roommate, Emily, and her father, Mr. Ellis, were waiting for me. In my hometown, falling down wasn’t an option for a teen like me because your peers would burst into enormous laughter, so much that you wish you didn’t exist. Well, I guess Ludington was different!
My first attempt at biking was when I was four years old. I was about 100 cm tall, and my bike was a few centimeters shorter than me. Riding was a little intimidating, but the excitement in my veins rushed at higher speeds than a cheetah going for its chase. The thrill of riding a bike had far surpassed my fear. I was ready to take over the world with my bike! The first day of riding lessons, my father had my brand new pink bicycle ready outside as he helped me put on my helmet. He somehow seemed pretty excited to see his first child learn how to ride a bicycle, but it was hard to tell for sure behind the simpering smile he usually wore on sunny days. Anyhow, I didn’t care; I just couldn’t wait to boast to my neighbor, who was sort of my frenemy (she had a bike before anyone in the neighborhood and wasn’t ashamed to let everyone know that she was a cool kid because of it—in short, no one slept in peace), that my daddy got me a bike and it was pink; moreover, it had rose flower designs on it!
“Are you ready?” my father asked.
“You bet I am!” I responded with the confidence of a holy man at the celestial gate.
I expected a long lecture on what to do in order to bike, but all he said was “pedal!” I always knew that my father was a man of a few words, but “pedal” seemed too short a lesson. I looked at him, a little disappointed that he thought I needed guidance with that instruction—I mean, who doesn’t know how to pedal? We biked around the block for about an hour, and it was the shortest hour I had ever experienced in my life. During the ride, in an attempt to pass through my neighbors’ houses, I deliberately swerved my bicycle in the opposite direction from what my father had told me, pretending that I thought he said left when he said right. Nevertheless, my rebellion didn’t bother me. The most important thing was that I could sleep that night knowing that everyone in the neighborhood knew that I was the new cool kid on a bike.
A week later, my father and I were preparing for another ride, but this time he started by meticulously unriveting my bike’s training wheels. I opened my eyes wide enough to pluck them out of my eyeballs in awe and immediately deflated them as I put on a shy smirk for three reasons. First, I had never realized that the training wheels were not really meant to be part of my bicycle. Secondly, I had never realized that everyone’s bike did not have them. Lastly, I was confident that this wouldn’t be harder than what I had done for the past week: pedal.
No sooner had I started riding my bicycle than I perceived that all I had believed for a week was a lie—riding a bike wasn’t as easy as just pedaling. My father’s left hand clutched onto my hand frames while his right one held the edge of my seat as I attempted to balance it. We did this about three times around the house and on my fourth attempt, my father’s lingering shadow was gradually disappearing into thin air. For a few seconds, I was riding without his help! My heartbeat suddenly increased; it’s odd to say that I felt like I was having a heart attack at the age of four. In a desperate search for my father’s shadow, I abruptly turned my neck, looking directly into my father’s eyes, squinting so hard that I forced out a tear or two. My father smiled—this time his lips exposing his bright and white teeth—then boom. I lost control. The proud moment was over, and I was now soaked from the pool of dirty, greenish, stagnant water that lay patiently on the yard as if it was waiting for a moment to interact with me. To my father, that didn’t matter as much. I had ridden the bike for some seconds without his help, and he was proud! The next day, I loathed being dormant because of my tiny but painful injuries.
Days had passed and my father had not resumed our riding lessons. For some reason, I did not ask why. I just assumed that everyone was busy because I had noticed that we were moving to a new house. “I can wait a few more weeks,” I said to myself. A new house, new yard, new friends or frenemies, and better biking—there was a lot to look forward to after all. That was yet another lie I had told myself, mainly because I never got the chance to learn how to bike from him again. My father was home more often, laying on the cozy couch, clicking the remote control buttons every other minute he could, and yet he never asked me to bike. I constantly nagged him, but he just couldn’t detach his abdomen from that sofa. I felt like telling him that if parenting was a test, he was failing (don’t judge me, I was a disappointed and sassy four-year-old girl).
A few months later, the multitude of people that flooded my house, the constant wailing and my father’s absence felt a little strange. It was only after a few years that I realized that the reason my biking lessons did not resume was because my sweet father had cancer of the colon, which eventually took his life and somehow quenched the burning desire in me to learn how to ride a bicycle.
I was now in Ludington, at a campsite 9,000 miles away from home, trying to continue the lessons that I had begun 14 years prior, before cancer happened to my father, this time with the wonderful people I had met at Hope: my roommate and her family.
“All you have to do is pedal it, Mary,” Mr. Ellis said as I struggled to squeeze all my braids into my helmet in preparation for the lesson. I rode, I fell and continued riding. By the end of the day, I not only had scars, but a skill as well—I could ride a bicycle.
This summer has been like learning how to ride a bike again as I’ve had to create my balance—my balance in school, in my relationships, in my spiritual life and my mental life—in the midst of the chaos caused by the pandemic.
Just like I had a coach to help me learn how to balance on a bike, it was a privilege to be on Hope’s campus with several “coaches” helping me (and the other international students) find the balance in an unforeseen crisis away from family:
- The Hope College Fried Center for Global Engagement Staff constantly kept in touch with international students to make sure we were good and eventually set up a food pantry that all students had access to (So grateful for everything they do!).
- My host parents randomly surprised me with groceries and checked on me weekly.
- I shared prayers and meaningful discussions with friends and family.
- Who could forget the occasional funny and hope-giving videos from President Scogin?
My journey of learning how to bike was a 14-year journey! Despite the absurd length of time, which was caused by a lot of unexpected events, I finally know how to balance my body on that two-wheeled machine; this gives me hope that even if we have no idea how long the pandemic will last, we can and will eventually create our “balance.”
I learned earlier in my biking journey that if you let go of the frame and stop pedaling, chances are you are going to fall (well, unless you are a professional). Therefore, we all have to remember to keep pedaling even when everything kinda sucks. We need to keep on loving, keep on working towards good, keep on staying safe, keep on wearing masks and keep on hoping (don’t lose hope!) until we create the balance. As author Jana Kinsford said, “Balance is not something you find, it’s something you create.” Learning how to bike taught me that it is okay to fall, but it is not okay to remain down—let’s stand up, maybe roll our eyes a little, keep on pedaling and create the balance that we need.
September 12, 2020 @ 11:34 am Mirriam Zulu
Really good,no formula to get there,,step by step we will get there..♥️♥️♥️
September 12, 2020 @ 1:17 pm Michelle Ellis
Wonderful! I loved Mary Ngoma’s article! I found it to be both inspirational and thoughtful. Thank you for publishing this, and thank you for taking such wonderful care of our international students… they are the heart and soul of Hope College, and central to our three daughter’s friendships, experience, and life on your campus. Bless you all!
September 30, 2020 @ 8:42 pm Michelle Yost
Mary, this was beautifully written! You are a woman of many talents – thank you for sharing them with us!