Sunday, November 06, 2011

Challenge 5: Direction

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#113. Talk about how a person can change his direction.

"Life is a highway, I wanna ride it / All night long. / If you're going my way, I wanna ride it, / All night long." -- Rascal Flats

My very first vehicle was a Big Wheel, which has been the "King of the Sidewalk for 40 years," according to the manufacturer. The Big Wheel is a plastic tricycle that rides low to the ground, with pedals attached to the oversized front wheel. My friends and I would spend hours on our Big Wheels, racing around the block onto another street of less familiar houses. The coolest feature -- used expertly by advanced riders -- was the hand brake on one of the rear wheels: going at top speed, you would pull up on the brake and the entire machine would go into a 180-degree spin. Changing direction was easy and fun, and we'd do it whenever the mood struck.

My friends and I soon graduated to the world of bicycles. Suddenly, the Big Wheel was too childish, and a proper dirt bike -- with large handgrips and colorful handlebar padding -- was on everyone's front porch, ready for adventure. We'd jump over those curbs that previously held us back, weave around parked cars, and tear up and down the hills in the nearby park. Those not cool enough to have a proper bike, or too slow to keep up, were left behind. Everyone could go in the same direction, and keeping up only meant pedaling harder. Making a hard turn meant pushing back on the pedals and going into a slide.

A few years later, a few of us got more serious about cycling. We got the larger frames and multiple gears of the 10-speed. We'd head out on weekend mornings to the lakefront or the forest preserve, where long, winding paths awaited. We'd race. We'd be gone for hours. We didn't wear helmets. At top speed, turning was a hazard. Sure, weaving around slower riders was easy -- just turn the handlebars slightly and lean -- but a complete turnaround was almost impossible without first coming to an almost complete stop.

And such is life: You join a pack, leave some people behind. Changing direction becomes hazardous, so you go with the flow.

My first car was the family Buick Regal. Big, comfortable, roomy, it could seat six at most, as we'd cruise the streets after dark or drive to school in the mornings. Certain former friends got left behind. Others got their own cars. Driving around town, changing directions was often a pain. With so many one-way streets, a turnaround required a trip around a block or two. The U- and Y-turns, which we had learned in drivers education class, were impossible or forbidden on most city streets.

At some point after high school, most of us moved on to a two-seat sports car -- or we may as well have. Life was a fast-moving highway, to be shared with one special person. Not enough room to share this life with others, not enough time to slow down and enjoy the scenery. The passenger seat, however, was not always occupied by the same person. Changing direction simply meant pulling off the highway at the next exit.

I don't know how the next part happened. But I have finally found myself driving an 18-wheel semi-trailer truck. Getting this thing to go full speed takes time and effort -- zero to 60 in ten minutes, it seems. At my side is my partner-for-life. In the trailer are our families and friends; we're responsible for safely getting the whole load to our destination. We're on a crowded, slow-moving highway. A complete change of direction seems impossible -- not that I can imagine wanting to. Even changing lanes takes coordination and patience. Better is to keep moving forward, to keep riding on the highway all night long.

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