Why I Teach

Late-night Bike Rides and Taking Risks

Jim Bolone’s favorite childhood memory keeps his love of teaching alive, even when bureaucracy gets him down.

It was Summer 1974 in Detroit, Michigan, the year I became a teenager. One night in late June, my buddies and I decided to sleep out in my backyard. Our tent was “old school”: an old bed sheet tossed over a clothesline, then staked into the lawn using clothespins. There would be more to this night than a campout. Our plan was to wait until my parents were asleep and then ride our bikes all the way to Grosse Pointe! We knew we were taking chances, but it was worth the risk to experience Grosse Pointe—especially Lake St. Clair—on our own terms.

After an hour or so navigating through a variety of lamp-lit neighborhoods, we reached Lake Shore Drive, where homes like castles glowed by floodlights and wealth existed everywhere, even in the ornate street signs. In the midst of it all, I believe the seven of us felt equally wealthy. We pedaled on, ultimately reaching our destination: an expanse of black sky, pinholed with stars set around a well-lighted moon that painted its trail toward us. Once there, all we could do was stare and just sit awhile and live, listening to lake sounds, breathing air different from our part of town, proud of our journey.

That night, we broke some rules to do something our own way, as if we’d eaten portions of freedom and growth we hadn’t been given but had taken for ourselves because we hungered for it. It is something I have not forgotten.

In an age of the Common Core, data collection, skills assessments and seemingly endless paper trails, somehow I have been able to process, accept and rationalize it all by using the words of Charles R. Swindoll as my guide:

“Life is 10 percent what happens to you, and 90 percent how you react to it.”

So I do my best to honor what is expected of me, and I make an effort to take risks.

For example, in my classes, I’ll take an extra day to really get into a terrific short story, the kind with soul that deserves extra time to digest and discuss, make text-to-life connections, analyze characters’ traits and intentions and share important themes. An additional class period or two might cover the making of a good response essay, taking time to clarify all steps and approaches. If a current event demands discussion, we’ll do that and tie it into the text. We’ll even take time to consider personal subjects too. (It’s amazing how much students like to discuss social issues.)

Being a junior high teacher means spending school days with kids who are at the age I was the night of that Grosse Pointe journey. Even though I don’t take my students on late-night bicycle excursions, I do dream with them. There is a place for this in everything we do as instructors, mentors, coaches and, yes, leaders. It could begin as a reflection, an anecdote or a remembrance, but what matters is helping to reveal the genuine you.

Spontaneity is authentic and is key to growing a classroom community. Unfortunately, many teachers feel that their classrooms have been diminished by sweeping changes in education; for them, spontaneity hides in shadows of trepidation.

I say welcome those changes. But if it comes to a choice of being bogged down by burdensome detail or giving kids an authentic life primer, choose the latter and flaunt it. In an age when technology and testing are ubiquitous, I believe in a classroom where technology and testing can complement my work, while students still get a good dose of me, the dreamer and risk-taker.

I teach because every day is like that bike ride in 1974—one we all experience together and one I never tire of.

Jim Bolone teaches reading and literary arts at Anthony Wayne Junior High School in Whitehouse, Ohio. Photography by Tom McKenzie.

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