Publisher’s note: This article was written by Riley Gabriel, a program mechanic at the Community Cycling Center.
“One day I’m on a bike ride with a couple students… The next week I’m hearing one of these students is in jail, and another was involved in a shooting.”
I’ve always been a hands-on person. I don’t know if it’s because of a love for the tangible or a general disinterest in the technological, but throughout my adult life I’ve pursued varied work building, fixing, and doing things, which has frequently involved bicycles. My resume is a mish-mash of pursuits: farmer, scientist, commercial fisherman, bartender, wooden boatbuilding apprentice, and bicycle mechanic.
Throughout these endeavors I’ve had to learn new skills constantly, sometimes on-the-fly. I’ve had amazing teachers and have also been left in the dark figuring things out for myself. I’ve found myself in workspaces with sexism so ingrained that I’ve had a hard time sensing what is wrong, and I’ve been face-to-face with people questioning my abilities because I am a woman. I’ve worked with mentors who inspire me and push me to learn more. With my diverse background I’ve developed a tool belt for teaching which has helped me immensely as the Program Mechanic for the Community Cycling Center, especially as an instructor with the STEM Program — an earn-a-bike program at alternative schools and a correctional facility that teaches bike mechanics through science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It’s the job that I didn’t know could possibly exist but that I’ve been dreaming about since I started working on bikes 10 years ago.
Officially, I’m a teacher. However, the stories I’ve heard from my students and the lessons I’ve learned make me wonder who is actually teaching. The students I work with range in age from 13 to 20. Many have had more life experiences than someone twice their age, and at the same time are still just discovering who they can become as individuals and where they fit into their communities. They teach freely about secret handshakes, sci-fi books, mutual support, how to pop a wheelie, systemic oppression, trust, and friendship.
One day I’m on a bike ride with a couple students, they’re skidding at every stop and making me chase them down so they respect traffic rules, but we’re all breathless and smiling. The next week I’m hearing one of these students is in jail, and another was involved in a shooting. The following week I’m sitting next to two teenage students in a correctional facility, they are sharing stories about the years they’ve been incarcerated and all the people and events in their families they’ve missed. And yet they are also talking about the importance of staying focused, making good decisions, and taking care of each other. Their resilience is unbelievable.
Working on bicycles provides many challenges. The systems are not always straightforward, people have different learning styles, and what might be super easy for one student is a big accomplishment for another. As a STEM Bike Class instructor I have to be adaptable and ready to meet each student where they are at that day. Some days feel more successful than others, but I often hear from other teachers that students are flourishing in Bike Class where they were struggling to succeed in more conventional school subjects.
I like to think the students feel the same power that I feel when turning a wrench, fixing a bicycle, and providing transportation for our friends, family, and community.
— Riley Gabriel is a program mechanic at the Community Cycling Center, a local nonprofit and bike shop with a mission to broaden access to cycling for people of all backgrounds. Please donate to Riley’s campaign to support the Community Cycling Center as it endures deep financial impacts from COVID-19.
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