by Matt Schiff
Our day to visit Delaware Ridge Elementary finally came and like most anticipated events – Christmas, New Years’, your birthday – was gone all too quickly. For weeks and months we’ve looked forward to spending a day with these students and when it was over, it felt like the culmination of the more than 100 presentations we’ve done before this.
As you know, Delaware Ridge is where a group of 1st graders have been following our progress since the start of the school year this fall (Teaching through more than a presentation). They’ve been learning about real people, everything from our eating habits to our navigation methods, and this creates more hands-on, purposeful learning, while still covering the standard skills of reading, writing, and math. This school takes a relatively new approach to learning and best of all is a public school serving a rather diverse community of Bonner Springs, KS.
We arrived the night before, traveling from Norwood, KS, up north, past Fritz’s, and out west to the edge of development, where the prairie takes over. We planned to stay at the school, either camping outside or “camping” inside, and all we needed was a little windy and cold weather to make the sensible decision to sleep in the classrooms. We’ve always joked that one day we’d set up our tents where we were going to present and just stay inside them, pretending to still be asleep as the students walk in. But we still didn’t go for it, perhaps because it wouldn’t be as funny as we thought and would mean a chaotic start to the morning. We met the two other first grade teachers, Miss Rockers and Miss Mayer, who have been working with Molly, and went through some slightly awkward introductions since they of course already knew us.
Entering the school there was bike49 stuff everywhere in each of the three classrooms and outside in the communal pod. None of us have any experience with being a rockstar (of course we’re not), or being famous or infamous for any reason, so to see pictures and articles about ourselves still shocks us a little bit. There were posters for each of us – Tommy, Aaron, Sara, and myself – listing what the students knew about us, what they didn’t know, and what they wanted to know, all gathered from Skype interviews, our online biographies, and blog posts. In the corner, taking up a set of bookshelves, was a museum almost resembling a shrine that included a variety of bike49 memorabilia. There was a post card we’d sent, a water filter, some of our famous quotes – “We’ll just wing it” and “No one said it would be easy” – some bicycle books including Sara’s, “The Flying Giraffe,” some pictures, a newspaper article, and more! It was all a little overwhelming and I was hoping when the students finally got to meet us, and faculty as well, we didn’t disappoint.
Scheduled for the evening was a chance for the students and parents to come and meet us and roast marshmallows around the fire. As the kids showed up we went out behind the school and gathered some wood. Waking to the forest we encountered head high grasses (for a first grader) and ruts several feet deep. Molly helped some kids over the deep ruts while some teamed up and helped each other. The forest was full of branches with thorns on them but as we went a little farther we found dead wood to make a fire with. Everyone took a few pieces. It’s amazing how much wood you get with 20 sets of hands. Heading toward the fire pit the goal was to not drop any as we encountered the same obstacles on the way back.
For starting the fire all eyes turned on members of bike49. We all are pretty competent at making fires but we don’t regularly light one. On this trip we’ve made less than 5 fires because we do all our cooking on camp stoves and being tired at the end of the day, tend to go to sleep early. As the students piled sticks around a few pieces of crumpled paper, Tommy and I prayed the fire would start with one try. The wind helped, the wood was dry enough, and all the kids were excellent helpers, allowing the fire to get good and hot quickly. We forgot a quick safety talk before things started burning but with parents supervising their kids, and stinging eyes and hot hands being good indicators of blowing smoke and being too near a fire, there was nothing to worry about. Before long the marshmallows were put onto metal skewers, being cooked four at a time. Some kids roasted them slow and brown like my older sister used to, and others stuck them in the flames letting them char up – my preferred method as a kid. Around the food table some of us bike49 members grabbed some apples and before long realized we started a trend. Many more kids began to grab an apple while they waited for their turn or even passed on making a s’more. One thick cloud blocked out the sun, the temperature dropped, and soon everyone was leaving for the evening.
After less sleep than desired, a trend with the past week’s busy schedule, we got up early and planned for the arrival of the students. Our anticipation must have been as great as the students. At 8:10 they came in and on many of their faces was a big smile as they saw us. Some were shy and others told stories, wanting to share anything, bike49 related or not. In my classrooms we passed the time before community circle by shooting bean bags at a clip-on basket hoop. I got down on one knee and tried to block shots resulting in big lobs being thrown up over my head. There was plenty of sharing and when some of the students insisted I take shots, I gave it my best but didn’t do nearly as well as they did. As 8:30 rolled around it was time more community circle, a gathering of the whole school twice a month and the place where the first graders would introduce us.
Along with joking about being in our tents when students arrive, we’d also joked in the past about making a grand entrance into a classroom, riding our bikes right in the door. This is exactly what was planned and happened at community circle. After we were introduced we rode one loop around the gymnasium, smiling and waving as if in a parade, before taking our seats behind the first grade classes. During the next 30 minutes we heard the 1st graders perform the bike49 song
they’d worked on in music class and all four of us were nominated as leaders with Sara being described as, “having a perfect brain, like an elephant.” I think the 1st graders were proud to have us sitting right by them. There were other songs and even rally to get everyone excited for standardized testing. As we left to a closing song, a photographer from the Kansas City Star shot some rapid fire photos on his $4000 dollar setup, making the whole moment go to our heads even more.
Unlike all the other talks we’ve done to date, today was more than just a presentation, but a day to spend time with the kids which is really more enjoyable and relaxing than having a short window of time to talk and make an impression. Back at the classrooms we started with the typical routine of the day called morning circle. Here a few agenda items are taken care of like the date, the day, counting lunch orders, and greeting one another. The greeting would go like this: “Good morning Tommy.” “Good Morning Matt.” “High five, hand shake, or a hug?” “High five.” This takes place in a circle so each person greets and gets greeted. Probably 90% of the students in Molly’s class went for the hug.
After some reading time, we loaded up our powerpoint presentation and all piled in one room. There’s a good chance most of the students had seen these pictures before but from their expression and interest we could see they thoroughly enjoyed our typical presentation. All the students took notes on what we talked about and the goal was not to write down everything that we said because of course that would be too much. They were working on a lesson in shorthand!
Enough sitting and time to go outside! Recess has certainly been my favorite part of school in the past. Several games were played; jump rope, tag, soccer, or playing on the playground, but my favorites were soccer – kicking a ball as hard as you can in any direction and chasing after it – and tag – chase people or be chased, it doesn’t matter. Usually I try not to get the students going too crazy indoors, but with that being the goal of recess, it was not the time to be cautious.
We took a short break for ourselves but joined the students for the second half of lunch. I took off my hat and one of the students tried it on, pretending to be the real Matt. I took a picture and soon everyone wanted to try on the hat, all pretending to be the real Matt. Soon everyone wanted to take a picture. Small hands are not as certain as older ones but I didn’t worry too much about getting the camera dropped because with the weather I’ve exposed it to, it only turns on half the time as it is. I’ll remember those moments for the laughter and silliness and it was some of my favorites of the day.
In the afternoon we split into four groups and set up our tents and sleep system for all the students to try. I forgot to plan ahead and I made two fatal mistakes. My sleeping pad had no air in it, and knowing how kids don’t sit still so well, did not want to take a minute to blow it up. The other assumption I made was a sleeping bag and thermarest outside the tent would be as good as trying it inside. With 11 kids wanting to test out my system – sleeping pad, sleeping bag, pillow and all – I started outside the tent. But once the tent was up, and this took just a matter of minutes from all the eager hands that were already trying to piece the poles together, everyone wanted to be in the tent, pretending to be camping and falling asleep. While I’d so far gotten no complaints from my half filled air mattress, one of the boys was sure to mention at the end that, “next time you come you should make sure to fill the mat with air all the way.” It’s hard being a teacher and knowing all the tricks and wise methods that appeal to youngsters. We often think of teachers that put in full day every day as the real heroes as they stand there in disbelief on how we could ever ride our bikes 50 miles a day for a year.
The good thing about grade school is how the days are organized and to keep things fun we were always changing course. Next we headed outside for a hike, into the same woods where we had gathered firewood the night before. I packed up my tent and got things in order before joining them. After a quick sprint I caught up with the tail end of the hikers and amused them by claiming I flew in from the sky, even though they weren’t having any of it. Molly then led everyone in an activity of what we notice about being outside. Many noted they were far from the school or saw cows or buffalo. Some noted the temperature and others the animal tracks and something else – ew, animal poop.
The day was going by so quick and had a very surreal feeling to it. Back inside, Sara read her book about a flying giraffe. It’s about a giraffe that grows up and drives a car but realizes it doesn’t provide the excitement he’s looking for until he comes upon a… bike! It’s a book Sara created on this trip and finished while her ankle healed in Kansas City, finding a printer and making 100 copies.
The last activity was closing circle. Some of the students recounted their favorite part of the day and then we left them with a gift we’d created – a friendship bracelet with the bike49 colors of orange, black, and a little light blue. They loved them. Some slid them up their arm and joked that they didn’t have one anymore or lost it. A few took them off and boasted how easily they could untie the knot. One girl promised she’d wear it forever.
The influence we’ve had on this group of first graders and the impact they’ve had on us has been huge. We’ve been studied and idolized and hopefully we’ve lived up to the reputation as the real thing. These first graders have been a great influence on us. We think of them in our daily lives when choosing what actions to take and what message we’ll leave behind. If we feel like quitting we remember them and we don’t want to let down people that are counting on us.
In the pod we all said goodbye and this time it was all hugs, no high fives or handshakes. After all the stops in Kansas City, and finally this last one at Delaware Ridge, we left feeling like this was the culmination of bike49. It could end today because we’ve completed everything we wanted to. But this is not the case. We’ve got mountains to look forward to and the desert southwest and many more children to introduce to the world of bike touring.