…to fix a bicycle? Silly, I know, but it is not surprising that those of us trained to use books as our tools might have “two left thumbs” with the tools of a bike shop. That’s why I am so glad to be taking a series of bike repair classes with my friend Ellen, who is also a rabbi and a cycling enthusiast. Ellen helped to inspire me to get back on my bike a year and a half ago. Once I did, I have enjoyed using it as primary transportation and exercise from the spring through the fall.

It’s no fun having a flat tire — two flats were enough to make me realize that I better learn how to change a tire while on the road. I bought a bike repair book and some basic tools suggested by my sons (my cycling mentors.) But I still couldn’t figure out how to get the tire to come apart and reassemble correctly. It was really frustrating.

Some things just can’t be learned from a book. So tonight we sat on the floor of the bike shop’s repair room struggling with the tire and inner tube, as our teacher patiently offered instructions and demonstrated the technique. It seemed like it should have been easy, but it wasn’t. And “truing” the wheels after you put them back on – we were bewildered. As we repeatedly tried to find the spokes that needed adjustment, we took turns asking the teacher to rescue us. He found the faulty spokes instantly. In exasperation, I said, “How did you do that?” “Experience,” he said. Duh, I knew that.

As an avid fan of the Food Network, this experience reminded me of a FN show that makes me uncomfortable. “America’s Worst Cooks” is a competition series, with the last cook standing after numerous rounds of relentless pressure being crowned the winner. The cooks, chosen by virtue of their complete lack of cooking skills, must create “restaurant quality” dishes for each timed session. The instructions for each competition are explained and some techniques are modeled. Then the sorry victims are on their own. The criticism of their performance can be painful to watch, no less for them to receive.

How much nicer it would be if they were mentored by patient teachers who view failure as an opportunity for another try. Then the role of the instructor would be to help everyone overcome their ignorance, inhibitions, and inexperience. Our bike repair teacher taught us the importance of thoroughly cleaning our bikes and showed us what to use and how to do it well. I had thought that the dirt on my bike was a badge of honor earned through all of my miles on the road. Who knew that it can ruin the parts of the bike? I could have felt stupid, but the manner of the class conveyed the opposite – we are all here to learn – no assumptions. I had to stop the teacher several times as he talked about the parts of the bike and their various issues — I didn’t know some of the words he was using. He explained and continued the lesson. The takeaway: a feeling of satisfaction for all of my new learning and understanding.

I can’t claim to be able to change a tire or true a wheel quickly — yet. I am sure I will forget some of the terminology and need a refresher by the next class. It is good to have the book for review and more opportunities to try.

The rabbis of the Talmud taught that a father’s primary responsibility is to teach his child to swim. Of course, it is a life-saving skill, and better to be prepared, just in case. But there is more to this – it is a pointer to the value of learning life skills, not just book learning, and the importance of mentoring in developing our abilities. It’s great to have a chance to learn from a person with knowledge, experience and passion for the task, and the patience to help us develop expertise for ourselves.

It’ll be so fun to do this with my kids when they come home for Spring break. I’ll pull out my bike and my new tools, and I might even be able to teach my mentors a few things. And if I can’t, I’ll happily receive new lessons from them.