Uphill Learning

It was my struggle on a bike trip that helped me understand Makela. On that 350-mile bike trip in northeastern Ohio, I was always behind. The hilly terrain worked for my husband Steve. Weighing more than I did, the energy from his downhill stretch propelled him most of the way up the next hill. And he’d stand there at the top, waiting for me to pedal up, my momentum having run out far below.

Like me, Makela was always trying to catch up. I watched her in class one morning. Other students were already half way through an essay test. But Makela was still rummaging for a pencil without success. When I lent her one, she stared at the writing prompt, perplexed, probably because she had forgotten to read the chapter assigned for last night. I left Makela to answer another student’s question, and when I came back, Makela’s eyes were closed, her breathing already heavy. Just a few minutes into the school day, and she was already behind.

When Makela was awake, she tried hard. Still, she stumbled over the words in reading texts, smudged her papers with erasures, and couldn’t seem to find her books.

Her classmates had momentum behind them—good food, enough sleep, and strong parental supervision. But Makela’s single-parent home was chaotic, her mother depending on Makela more than parenting her.

Because of these uphill struggles, I came to see that Makela needed some boosts. And I remembered how, on flat stretches of our bike trip, I drafted behind Steve. With my front wheel just overlapping his rear wheel, I lowered my wind resistance. Tucked in close behind Steve, I could conserve my energy for the next hill. How could I block some wind for Makela? Help her conserve energy to fight her battles?

First, I acknowledged her challenges. Relieved, she began to talk. Her mom, she told me, worked second shift. And so Makela ran the house each evening—mediating the fights of her younger siblings, feeding them dinner, and putting them to bed. Then she worried about her mom. Would she come home after work at 11:00? Or would she show up at 1:00 wasted with booze and need help getting to bed?

“It’s hard to do homework when I’m worried,” Makela said.

So Makela came to my room for lunch sometimes. There she could do her homework without interruption.

In the back corner of my room, I made a drawer for Makela. In it she could find sharpened pencils and notebook paper, and extra textbook, and an occasional treat.

“You take care of lots of people,” I told her. “Let me take care of you a little.”

And I often teamed Makela with students who could encourage her, guide her, pull her along.

When I was sucked along in a pocket of air Steve created for me, I found new courage to conquer another hill. And this is what I wanted for Makela.


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