by Laurie Lahti
“Laurie, I challenge you to do something out of your comfort zone and discover your inner badass.”
“Like what?” I replied.
“Well, you could take an improv class, like we’ve talked about before. Or you might think of something else,” my therapist suggested.
Taking her challenge to heart, I gave myself a few days for ideas to percolate and my intuition to guide me. The term “badass” made me laugh, because it was so far removed from my self-concept and the demeanor I present to the world. The transformation I imagined was like Sandy in Grease, from miss goody two shoes to badass in black leather.
Not even 24 hours passed before an idea occurred to me, like an intuitive spark. I knew I needed to learn how to ride a motorcycle. Without wasting any time, I registered for a Basic Motorcycle Rider Course held at a local high school during a July weekend in the upcoming summer of 2014.
I had been the rider on numerous motorcycle adventures with my husband, Craig, but the thought of ever driving one myself was never something I considered. In fact, it was never something I even thought possible. Although I like to be in control, it was easy to surrender control to my husband, the driver, whom I trust, and just enjoy the ride. When I embarked on this journey to learn how to operate a motorcycle, my ignorance was prodigious. I couldn’t tell the difference between the clutch and the brake. I had no idea what the right hand, left hand, right foot, and left foot were responsible for, only that all limbs were involved in the process. And I never had any luck with driving a stick-shift car, so how would I handle a motorcycle that required coordination with a clutch and gear shifting? Anxiety fluttered throughout my belly. I would have an audience as I stumbled with learning something new. What if I embarrass myself? And even worse, what if I hurt myself or others? I hated the thought of embarrassment. I’ve always been terrified of making mistakes and failing and disappointing myself and others. As I mustered my courage, I tried to look at this adventure as inexpensive therapy. The cost was only $25 and my time. I would try something new and learn more about myself through the process. Even if I embarrassed myself, living through it would strengthen me.
Even if I embarrassed myself, living through it would strengthen me.
One month into summer vacation, I spent four hours on a Friday night in a high school art classroom, doing the “school” part of the motorcycle course. Since I’d worked as a school teacher for fifteen years, I was okay with that, still in my comfort zone-doing simple book work in a group, sharing answers with the whole class, laughing at the teacher’s jokes, and watching cheesy, low-funded videos. But my neck and shoulders were painfully tense when I got home that night, in fear of the impending “range time,” which would commence in the morning. Range time would force me into the driver’s seat of a motorcycle and require me to apply the book knowledge.
“Craig, can you show me the basic parts on your motorcycle?” I asked when I got home near 10:30pm. My mind was overwhelmed with all the new terminology, and I was still confused about where to even locate the basic parts like the starter switch, clutch, throttle and brake pedal, let alone use them to start up a motorcycle like I would be expected to do in the morning. After a field trip to the garage, I ate a light meal, studied my manual and notes from class, and sat in our sauna to try to relax before bed. Just as I was finally drifting off to sleep, my Yorkshire Terrier, Quizzle, started barking. Are you kidding me? Can’t a stressed woman get any rest? Usually, my dog is quiet throughout the night and sleeps peacefully in his crate. Of course, he had to choose the summer night I most needed my sleep to bark obnoxiously for hours on end. My alarm sounded at 6:00am, and I stumbled out of bed, cranky and longing for more rest.
With the unknown ahead of me, I was wide awake with nervous energy by the time I was in my car, heading toward the school to report for range time with my scheduled group. I had to stop at a gas station to use the restroom and eliminate some of my fear.
Arriving on time, I got into my full protective gear and met my instructors. Various colors of Honda Rebel 250s lined a strip of the parking lot. The bikes were worn, with dents and scratches, yet another sign of the potential danger lurking ahead of me. In the first exercise, I doubted that I’d ever get my feet on the pedals and be able to ride, instead of simply walking and pushing the bike. But I soon found my balance and was able to cruise slowly in first gear. I’m doing it! My joy was reminiscent of learning to ride a bicycle as a child. But when I had to push to turn my motorcycle around, mine roared like a wild beast. Something wasn’t right. I had trouble with the initial start up, and now I needed help again. One of the instructors took a look at my bike. Since it gave him an electric shock, he had me switch bikes. It was bad enough that I felt insecure before the day began, but now it looked like I was getting off of my bike and quitting. The words of my therapist echoed in my head and buoyed my courage. Embarrass yourself and live through it. Think of it as an experiment that will give you some feedback.
Rapidly, my class moved from one exercise to another. When we got to a drill that required an increase in speed as we shifted from first to second gear, a complete stop, a controlled turn, and numerous repetitions, I felt scared again. I had some difficulty with stalling throughout my morning, particularly when I was stopped. Early on, I let go of the clutch and felt the bike jerk forward, which sent a wave of fear through me.
“Don’t release the clutch so fast! Easy does it and hold part way,” the instructor advised.
I continued to persevere. When my bike wouldn’t start after stalling, I had to change motorcycles again. That caused me to miss some rounds when my group was working on driving around the perimeter and then leaning and swerving between cones, so I was falling behind. It wasn’t long before I joined my group, and my confidence resurfaced as I maintained my speed in second gear. I survived the first two-hour block of range time, but the seemingly slow passage of time was reminiscent of being induced for my daughter’s birth. Both arduous tasks, but at least I had made some progress with my current endeavor. However, that’s another story.
I sucked up my inner courage and returned for my second scheduled range time.
After the first block of range time I felt overheated and exhausted. My left hand was throbbing and sore from holding the clutch so intensely. I later learned that I wasn’t supposed to be using it the whole time. Oops! I found refreshment at Tim Horton’s and enjoyed an Iced Capp. Following the break, I sucked up my inner courage and returned for my second scheduled range time.
Fear seized me in the sixth exercise while trying to come to a stop. I must have released the clutch, because all of a sudden, I felt like I was flying forward and I felt totally out of control. I screamed, “Aagghhhhh!” and I squeezed the clutch and tried breaking. Tears were in my eyes as I screamed again when my bike lurched forward a second time before coming to a complete stop. An instructor was immediately at my side to congratulate me on using the clutch. I didn’t tip over. I didn’t hurt anyone. But I shook myself up and lost a good dose of confidence. It took me a few minutes to recover and pull myself together. As I reflect, I’m kind of amazed that I got back on the bike and tried the next exercise with everyone. I was doing alright, and I knew the instructors believed in me.
However, the next exercise required us to drive in a relatively big circle, shifting from second gear up to third, down to second, up to third, and so on, around and around, together as a group. I was not feeling comfortable with this drill. I had been struggling to increase my speed enough to shift gears. Maybe I could accelerate more, but I was afraid I’d crash into the other drivers because it didn’t feel like enough space for me. I would’ve preferred the whole parking lot to myself to practice this one. So I drove my bike over to the side, hopped off, and took my helmet off. Of course, I needed to explain to my instructors why I was dropping the course. It was nothing against them; I simply needed to honor my intuition and realize I’d had enough.
I am not one to quit something I’ve started. The only other time I’ve technically failed a course was AP Calculus in high school. I was struggling with the material, so I went in early on numerous occasions to get help from the teacher. I was advised to take the class with the option: credit/no credit, so it wouldn’t hurt my GPA. It was the only time I ever did that, and I ended up failing and receiving no credit. But I overcame that failure in college by earning a math minor. I recall acing at least one Calculus test, and I went on to take Calculus II successfully in college.
What was going on here? I wasn’t a beauty-school dropout like Frenchy in Grease, but I was suddenly a Basic Motorcycle Rider Course dropout. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel ashamed for what others may view as failing. I learned so much about riding a motorcycle in 24 hours, and I accomplished what I set out to do. I experienced driving a motorcycle by myself, albeit slowly, but I did it! Beyond that, I had grown personally. The experience, like good therapy, allowed me to be afraid and brave. I took a risk and felt vulnerable. I embarrassed myself and lived through it. I was fully alive. I was an adult who could grant herself permission to stop at any time, with grace and freedom. I didn’t need to prove anything to anyone or worry about what others thought of me. I just needed to be happy with myself, and I was. Maybe this is what being a badass is about, after all.