“I want to ride my bicycle/I want to ride my bike” sang Freddie Mercury in 1978. I’m not sure how genuine his sentiment was, but I tell you now after four weeks of being off the bike, it’s a fairly accurate approximation of how I feel.
Let’s be clear, I’m not a skinny whippet clocking up 100 miles each weekend, and neither am I prone to throwing a mountain bike around the trails. But I do like to ride my bike: I like the ease of travel, the happy speed/efficiency ratio, the schadenfreude of passing people in big expensive cars stuck in traffic, the satisfaction of climbing a really big hill, the joy of freewheeling down the other side, the contemplative meditative state you achieve, and the sweet open freedom of movement.
You’ll excuse me for gushing. But I’ve come to enjoy riding, and now, owing to an accident a few weeks ago, I can’t. This is only temporary, thank goodness, but even so I quickly started to come up with a long list of the things I couldn’t do while my arm was in a sling. I couldn’t support myself on that side very well, I couldn’t open jars or get those plastic seals off the top of milk cartons, I couldn’t sleep in the way I liked, I couldn’t hold a book while lying down, I couldn’t pick up my children when they fell over, or wrestle (you need a small boy in your life to understand this), or give them big-two-arm hugs. There were wider consequences: family routines had to change to allow for the extra time it takes to get to work without a bike, I couldn’t go swimming with them, I couldn’t drive on family trips, I was limited in how I could help around the house. As a result of not riding, and the longer journeys, I have come to resent work quite a lot for being nearly 90 minutes away from home, resenting meetings that over-ran by five minutes, resenting stupid relocation of one building to a site on the other side of town to the railway station (a 10-15 minute walk, after all, is an easy two minute ride) . Then there is the loss of freedom of movement, not the pretend freedom you get from car ownership (free to pollute, free to pay car tax, free to pay for maintenance, and free to sit wasting your life, fuming and frustrated in traffic jams) but actual freedom where it takes you the same amount of time regardless of traffic, regardless of delays, and with a journey, even at rush hour that is always exhilarating and usually fun.
It’s healing now, of course, and now only some of those things remain true. And none of them are the big profound things that might have faced me with a damaged spine, or a lost limb, for which I consider myself very lucky. I’m still alive, as well, which is a big bonus. And all this time I’ve been able to clothe myself (just), wash, eat, cook, clean, read, write, work (only two days off), and in fact do almost all the other things that make me happy. Even though the hugs have been one-armed but they have still been hugs. So it’s not been bad, but the sense of “can’t” has been consistent, and still frustrating.
So it was I found myself wondering about what you do go through if something properly serious happens: if you know you are never going to be able to do all those things, how long does it take to get past that frustration? How quickly does wistful wishing become outright despair, and how much support do you need to cope with it?
I also found myself thinking of my students: out of all learners, the migrant learning the language of their host country is almost universally defined by what they cannot do. Sure, we mean well, but the very nature of what ESOL teachers do is defined by what or learners can’t. And this sense of can’t must surely be more profound than my shoulder-related niggle: not just in class but in day to day life. Students come to class because they can’t help their children, can’t talk to officials, can’t cope at the hospital, and even if they can find a job, they can’t find a job commensurate with their skills and qualifications. ESOL students are so often defined by what they can’t.
I know ESOL teachers celebrate our students, their abilities and achievements: of course we do, and we must. To offset the deficit frustrations of not being able to use a language, we learn what our students can do, what skills they have: it’s what makes the job interesting, after all. They’re not helpless babies to be pitied and petted, but adults with knowledge and experiences, often a world away from our own comfortable existences: knowledge and experiences which we celebrate, share and engage with.
Which brings me back to the far less important matter of my arm, and enjoying and celebrating the many things which I can do. So I’d anyone wants me, I may be reading a book, writing a blog post, drinking, eating (probably too much), and, of course, hugging my children.