In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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My six-year-old son, Oliver, and I push our bikes up the sidewalk in McClellan Heights, the most coveted residential district in Davenport, Iowa, a leafy neighborhood where some of my fellow professors live; where, in Mark Twain’s day, the famous Rock Island Rapids riverboat pilots built their mansions. This morning the streets are cordoned off, and cheering spectators line the sidewalks and yards. The occasion is the 53rd annual Quad Cities Criterium, a day of bicycle races around a short, hilly loop, past historic homes. We stop at Lyle and Sigrid’s place, a stately foursquare with a wide porch and generous front lawn that today is covered by folding chairs and canopies for their annual “crit” party. Canned craft beer and ice fill a kiddie pool, and a neighbor who owns a local brewery has donated a keg of ale. A commercial-sized smoker sits on its trailer at the edge of the yard. The hosts have spent hundreds of dollars on food and drink — an investment in local goodwill. Sigrid is a lawyer, and Lyle a software developer; they are the sort of people I now consort with, though I never would have gotten near a party like this in my younger days.
There are no other kids at Lyle and Sigrid’s, and Oliver seems fine with this. Typically energetic around children his own age, he’s often reserved and watchful when out with me. Most of our adventures involve bike rides — increasingly long excursions. So far the farthest he’s ridden in a day is thirty miles. He pedals fast, stays in his lane, and never complains about headwinds, hills, or bad weather. To reward his dedication, I’ve bought him a top-shelf kid’s bike. At $349 the seven-speed hybrid is more expensive than any bike I owned before the age of thirty-five, though I’ve since made up for the thrift of my youth. I now have three bikes that come in at a combined $4,500. I don’t mention this to brag or to shame myself. I’ve met cyclists who will spend $15,000 on a single bike.
My interest in bicycles started early. On my third birthday my uncle pulled the training wheels off the bike I’d received as a present, and he forced me to learn to ride right then and there. Over and over I fell, weeping and cursing, but by day’s end, I rode. I’ve told this story of trial by fire many times over the years, partly out of pure braggadocio: three years old is pretty young to learn to ride a bike, and I’m proud of the accomplishment my uncle foisted upon me. I also understand that by today’s standards what my uncle did was abusive, but I can’t help thinking he was, in part, correct to put me through it. I’ve become the sort of old crank who believes — silently, for the most part — that we Americans have gone soft, obsessed with comfort, convenience, and amusement to the exclusion of all else, living lives with one overriding objective: the avoidance of pain at all cost. And quite a cost it is.
Oliver, on the other hand, without tears or blood, beat my record by three months. When he was a year old, I read about “balance bikes,” the tool of choice for Europeans who want to introduce their young children to cycling. Essentially a small bike without pedals, it’s a more natural, intuitive way to learn to ride than training wheels. I bought Oliver a balance bike for his second birthday — not cheap, but he’s our only child. After a couple of months toddling around with it between his legs, he took off, coasting his way around the neighborhood, speeding down long hills. Three months before his third birthday, his Italian grandfather (on his mother’s side) set him on a proper bicycle, pushed him forward, and shouted, “Spingi, spingi, spingi!” Just like that, he rode down the driveway. I could hardly believe it: learning could happen without pain.
After lunch Oliver and I walk around the neighborhood, pausing occasionally to watch the criterium. At one point a skinny teenager breaks away from the pack. I’ve seen enough of these races to know that the rider who breaks away early almost never wins. The most reliable strategy is to hang back with the crowd for as long as possible, let others battle the wind for you, and then leap out with fresh legs at the last moment to grab victory. Competitive cycling is, in a sense, the art of hiding from the wind, hunkering behind others for as long as they are useful, then moving on to the next host, like a parasite.
The day has begun to repeat itself, races for different age brackets all blending into one endless contest in which the riders appear to age before my eyes: teens to twenties to thirties to forties, around and around, the winners gathering medals, the losers rolling their bikes slowly out of sight.
We used to live in town, but as Oliver’s kindergarten year approached, my wife and I sold our first house and moved to a village fifteen miles away. We’d enjoyed the urban life, cycling both to work and to the shops and restaurants along the riverfront, but we moved so that Oliver could attend school in the second-best district — out of 367 — in the state (according to the latest U.S. News ranking). In the schools where my wife teaches, on the west side of the city, students struggle with drugs, gangs, guns, homelessness, abuse, hunger, parental indifference, and so on. In Oliver’s district the most immediate concern is the pursuit of sky-high standardized-test scores.
Among his hyper-prepared classmates Oliver has turned out to be something of a troublemaker. He regularly gets sent to the principal’s office for infractions like throwing snowballs during recess even after the teacher has told him not to. The principal will ask us to talk to him, and I’ll sit him down and tell him not to throw snowballs, or else he’ll end up in the principal’s office, and I’ll end up getting called, and it will be a big hassle that’s easily avoidable. My wife takes a more moralistic tone during these sessions. Throughout it all, Oliver nods and tells us he won’t do it again, but we know he will.
In spite of these occasional run-ins with administrators, Oliver seems to tolerate and even enjoy school. Unlike me at his age, he’s comfortably exceeded all the state’s academic benchmarks. He’s well liked, creative, and athletic, but he has his flaws. A terrible temper, for instance. If he encounters the slightest difficulty with an assignment, he’ll throw his work across the room and stomp off in fury. I’ve tried to convince him that it takes time to learn new things, but he won’t listen. For some reason he’s gotten it into his head that everything he wants should come to him easily — a misunderstanding that his parents, I’m afraid, have done little to correct.
Among the gifts we’ve been able to heap upon Oliver are summers in Italy, where his doting grandparents and an uncle live in a picturesque walled city. Without having labored to learn Italian, he’s become fluently bilingual. When the time for college comes, my university job will afford him free tuition at any of dozens of private colleges around the country. Because his mother is an Italian citizen, he’ll also be entitled to free university and health care in her home country, in case things around here finally go south for good. Compared to his classmates — the children of doctors, engineers, accountants, and so on — Oliver will do OK. Compared to my wife’s students, he might as well have royal blood.
My wife texts to ask how we’re doing and when we plan to come home. Before I can respond, a race volunteer fixes her gaze on Oliver and heads our way, brandishing a stack of paper. “Do you want to be in a race?” she asks him, handing me a flyer.
“Yes,” he says.
This surprises me. He rarely speaks to strange adults. But if anything can overcome his shyness, it’s his competitive spirit, which emerges most often on two wheels. When cyclists zip by us on the bike path, Oliver invariably speeds up and paces them for a hundred feet or so, prompting smiles, chuckles, and thumbs-ups from the amused riders. Once, when he was five, he sped up as a middle-aged man tried to pass him. Stuck in the passing lane and unable to overtake this small child, the man glanced over at Oliver’s tiny legs, spinning in a cartoonish blur, and laughed. “Good job, buddy,” he said, and increased his speed. Oliver, grim-faced and staring forward, matched the guy’s pace again. The man’s smile faded, and he put all his effort into finally leaving this brat behind, but Oliver just wouldn’t let him. Watching them from behind, I felt embarrassed, both for the man and by my son’s bad cycling manners.
“Slow down!” I shouted. “Let him pass.”
Oliver pretended not to hear.
“Give me a break, kid,” the man finally complained, and I thought: Come on, dude. If you can’t manage to pass a five-year-old, I really don’t know what to do for you.
I didn’t have Oliver’s competitive streak at his age, at least as far as school went. When, after several years of nomadic hippie roaming with my parents, I finally enrolled, I stood stalled at life’s starting line, unaware that the race had begun even as my classmates sprinted out of sight. My brother, my cousins, and I had all been raised near-feral, naked tykes growing up in our parents’ counterculture experiment. The lines, bells, fences, and rules of public school all confused and frightened me, and the counselor labeled me a “passive nonachiever.” I mostly spent my time hoping to escape notice.
Luckily I had some advantages — a healthy body and mind, a wealthy grandmother who bought me clothes every fall — so I wasn’t on the bottom of the social order. By high school I’d become a member in good standing of the hedonist clan, the drinkers, smokers, and class-ditchers the school system was grooming (unbeknownst to us) for jobs in factories, retail, or construction. I don’t recall ever taking a standardized test, though I must have, growing up in the U.S. Perhaps I skipped class on the days they were administered. Or, more likely, I took the test without understanding its significance. I do recall filling in bubbles on answer sheets from time to time, creating patterns without even reading the questions, because I couldn’t see the point of putting in the effort.
My wife came from a different country, with a different set of expectations. She attended an elite, merit-based high school dedicated to the study of the classics, where the teachers would viciously berate children for failing to perfectly memorize the assigned Greek and Latin. Her teachers offered no praise for any reason, even during graduation, when my wife finished with the highest final-test score in her school. She believes the uncompromising, cold approach taught her the value of focus, hard work, and excellence; I believe it taught her that no matter how hard she tries, she’ll never be good enough. I believe my hardscrabble upbringing prepared me for a harsh, unforgiving world; she believes I was neglected.
The only high-school test that stands out in my memory is one I took in Mr. Hobbs’s government class in my senior year. I liked Mr. Hobbs, a large black man who often rhapsodized over his two great loves: beer and sweets. He openly favored the minority students in class, but this never struck me as unfair or surprising. The white teachers, though more subtle about their biases, preferred white students. Why shouldn’t a black teacher give special attention to the black kids? To feed his sugar addiction, Mr. Hobbs often sent a handpicked errand boy off campus to buy Twinkies, chocolate bars, or bags of candy. Once, a white kid raised his hand to volunteer for the mission, and Hobbs dismissed him. “I need someone who knows how to escape the gestapo,” he said, referring to the campus security. Then he chose a Latino. “You get caught,” he said before the boy slipped out the door, “I don’t know you.”
One day Hobbs laid into me for failing yet another test. “You’re going to end up on the streets, Mr. Daniels,” he predicted. Mr. Hobbs always called us by our last names because, as he said on the first day of class, “We are not friends. Our relationship is professional. Now, if I invite you to my house, I’ll call you by your first name, and you can call me by mine. And if you do come to my house, you better bring some beer.”
I told Hobbs I could ace his tests if I felt like it.
“You? My tests?” He laughed.
To prove him wrong, I read the assigned chapter the night before the test, and I got a 100.
Mr. Hobbs couldn’t believe it. He kept me after class and peppered me with questions about the chapter. I answered them all. Finally he shook his head and said, “You got a good mind, boy, but you’re wasting it.”
He was right. It took many years for me to understand that easy recall of written material is a useful gift in the classroom — the one place I extended zero effort. Later, after I’d become a college student at twenty-two, I looked back and wondered: How could I have been so stupid? Why hadn’t anyone told me that, with minimal work, I could have chosen my own path through the world rather than get pushed around by forces I could neither understand nor control? Why hadn’t my parents prepared me to succeed?
The answer to the last question is that they, like millions of other parents, didn’t know how.
But our upbringings aren’t supposed to matter, right? In America we alone take credit for our successes. Nobody wants to hear how our parents make or break us — especially those who have most benefited from the circumstances of their births.
Look at our president. Trump was born into wealth. His father gave him the equivalent of $413 million in today’s dollars. To his supporters his very presence in the White House has made this country a winner. His children, also born into wealth and power, are winners, too. It doesn’t matter how clumsily or ineptly they wield their positions or whether they’ve earned them (they haven’t); it matters only that they have money and use it to bludgeon all obstacles between themselves and what they want. Traits that were once seen as virtues, like restraint, compassion, honesty, integrity, humility, good sportsmanship, a sense of humor — in short, character — have become weaknesses in today’s America.
I text my wife back and tell her Oliver has been invited to compete in the kids’ race; if she hurries, she might be able to catch it. Oliver and I grab our bikes and coast down the hill to the quaint shopping district where the race will begin and end.
When we get there, we find a boisterous festival scene with an emcee announcing the winners over a PA and handing out medals. At the registration table a woman pins a number to Oliver’s shirt and tells us that each rider receives a participation medal and a free ice-cream cone after the race. We find the starting line for his age group, and I quietly urge him to push his tire right up to the front and not let anyone edge him back into the second row. From the sidewalk I can see him staring forward at the track with determination. I feel a flutter in my gut. From here on out, I can’t help him. I see my wife across the street. She waves at me, and I wave back. The emcee is counting down: “Five, four, three, two, one, go!”
Two boys jump out ahead of Oliver, and I tell myself there’s no shame in third place. But then Oliver finds the right gear and begins to close the distance. My hands sweat as he overtakes the boy in second place. The course is a straightaway three city blocks long, with a subtle uphill slope starting at the halfway point. As he hits the beginning of the climb, Oliver stands on the pedals and assumes the lead while the emcee shouts. Oliver, who has been riding the hills of this river valley for more than half his six years, crosses the finish line forty feet in front of the second-place boy. A laughing race organizer catches my son so he doesn’t blast into the crowd. I lift my fist and shout, as thrilled as if I’d come in first myself. The people around me back away, eyeing me warily. No one’s been paying attention to this little sideshow of a race but me.
I wade into the crowd and find Oliver astride his bike, examining an Olympic-style medal someone has draped around his neck. “Did you see?” he asks as I approach.
“I sure did,” I say, and I give him a high five.
“Hey, guys,” my wife says, approaching. “That was great!”
“How come it’s not gold?” Oliver asks about the medal. I pinch it between two fingers, surprised by the sturdiness: solid metal, dull bronze in color, embossed with the image of a bike and rider on the front, the logo of the race sponsor on the back.
In the street the slowest racers are still laboring toward the finish line. The kid in last place, overweight and riding what I recognize even from a distance as a Walmart bike with a rusty chain, steps off his bicycle to push it the last twenty feet. A mild disappointment tugs at me. “That’s just the kind of medals they give to kids,” I tell Oliver, but he’s not listening, having moved on.
“What do you think?” I ask my wife, grinning. “First place.”
My wife, first in her high-school class, scoffs. “Did you see who he was racing against?” she asks.
I cringe because I know she’s right. The race wasn’t fair. One leg of a much longer competition, today’s event had ended before it began: perhaps on the day I’d bought Oliver a balance bike for his second birthday; or the day I’d moved from broke student to professor; or even earlier, when I’d left my job hanging drywall to give college a try. As I ponder the nature of fair play, a vision appears before me of my son grown into the sort of person who thinks he deserves it all: the gold medal, the best bicycles money can buy, the most-prestigious schools. I don’t want him to become this person. And yet I know I will be unable to resist giving him every advantage.
“Where’s my ice cream?” he asks, and I touch his head, silently apologizing for all the ways that I will fail him.