Transformations (S)

In 1979 I was 29 and I was living and working in Montreal, Quebec. I was, at the time, the sales manager for a medium-sized sportswear manufacturer. I had a few friends and acquaintances who were teachers at the local high school whom I hung out with fairly regularly. Over beers one night, Brian mentioned that he and his wife (also a teacher at the school) were organizing an activity for some of the younger kids (13-14 year-olds), more specifically a nine-day bicycle trip from Toronto back to Montreal…a distance of around 365 miles. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, what could possibly go wrong?

Brian noticed a rusted-out bicycle in my backyard and assumed that at one time I enjoyed being on a bike, which was true, but it had been a while since I had been on the thing, and needless to say I was a bit skeptical about where he was going with this. He said that the kids had to do several training runs before the trip began to make sure that they could handle cycling around 40-50 miles a day with all the gear that they needed to have with them – clothes, tent, sleeping bags, etc., etc. He asked me if I wanted to fix up my bike and join him and some of the other teachers going on the training runs – it appears that I was complaining at the time of being out of shape…always be careful about complaining about being out of shape in front of fitness types, if you know what I mean. Not wanting to lose face given my repeated exclamations about my increasing waistline, I put my beer and slice of pizza down, grabbed a glass of water and said: “Sure, I would love to join you!” What was I thinking?

The very next day I dutifully brought my bike to the local bike shop, and judging by their reaction when they saw the rust bucket, I knew that my wallet would be taking a substantial hit! Three days later, I had a gleaming bicycle all tuned up and ready to go. The training rides were scheduled for three weekends in May, since they were leaving on their trip the beginning of June. As the first weekend ride approached, I was filled with a sense of excitement and a feeling of what-the-hell-have-I-gotten-myself-into; these are not necessarily the only emotions running through my head at the time.

The first ride was a thirty-mile warm-up and we were blessed with a nice day and perfect temperature. I met the group in the school parking lot, and was introduced to 28 13-14 years-olds (24 boys and 4 girls, this imbalance would eventually right itself in subsequent trips, but I’m getting ahead of myself!). They looked at me rather puzzled, probably wondering why a non-teacher would be joining in on the ride, with some of them I am sure thinking: “Why is he doing this?” Trust me when I tell you that the exact same thought was going through my head. The ride went very well, meaning that I did not cough up a lung and I got to bond with a few of the kids…I was hooked! Put another way, my transformation had begun, although at the time I probably didn’t realize that I was transforming at all. After the remaining training runs, and with about a week to go before the trip was to start, Brian asked me if I would like to join the teachers on the trip. I had so much fun on the rides and equally as much fun getting to know the kids. I replied with a resounding YES!

At work the next morning, I cornered my boss (the owner of the company) and mentioned that I had some vacation days owed to me and I ran the dates of the trip by him to see if we could make it work, which we did. He then asked me where I was going. Before I could answer, he chimed in with: “Are you going to Hawaii, Costa Rica, …rattling off several exotic locations in a row. When I told him I was taking the time to go on a bicycling trip with 28 13-14 year-olds from Toronto to Montreal, he looked at me as though I had taken leave of my senses, but he had a smile on his face the whole time! The plan was for the kids and teachers to take the train to Toronto with all the bikes and gear, camp out in Brian’s parent’s backyard that night, and start the trip back the next day. I drove to the second night’s stop (about 50 miles east of Toronto) with my gear, so that my car could be used as the support vehicle for the trip.

I could wrap this story up now and go on about how my transformation took place and what unfolded on this particular trip, but I’m not going to do that! If you remember, the title of this story is transformationS, and the emphasis is definitely on the plural S. If you will, what I have just shared with you is the preamble to the real story of transformation – a 13 year-old-boy named Joseph.

This transformation story, along with mine takes place the following year and on the second installment of these long distance bicycle trips. Having had so much fun on the first one, I was asked to join again, which I did… I eventually wound up doing three of these trips before I relocated to a different part of the country. The second trip saw the group swell from 28 to 35, but this time there was an even split between boys and girls, I guess the word was out! My work schedule this time around only allowed me to take part in one of the training runs, so I did not get to meet all the kids until the day we left on the trip. This time, our route would take us from Montreal to Kingston ON, then to Ottawa ON, where we would spend two nights and visit the Parliament buildings, before returning to Montreal – the total distance this time: around 410 miles in nine days!

The scene at the school’s parking lot was the usual chaos one would expect with 35 kids, parents, grandparents, dogs, etc. all running around making sure they had everything they needed, with many parents assuring one another that their kids would be fine cycling 400+ miles in nine days with what had to look like a rag-tag bunch of teachers! And, then there was Joseph. As I was standing in the parking lot talking to Brian about some last minute logistics for the trip, I noticed this short, sort of heavy-set young boy standing in the parking lot with his parents away from the throngs of people. They were, to say the least, not animated like the other kids and parents, and not taking part in the last minute chaos, but rather just observing what was unfolding before them with a look of shock and disbelief on their faces. I asked Brian what the deal was with this kid and family, and he informed me that he was a late addition to the trip and also new to the school. The family had recently emigrated from Italy, with the parents’ Italian accents still noticeable when they spoke. He also added that Joseph was very, very shy and his parents thought that this would be a good thing for him. I could see the look of skepticism on Brian’s face, as he was concerned that this might be too much for Joseph to handle – not the cycling but the social and team building, which was a very important part of the, shall we say, curriculum.

To this day, I am not sure what made me say this, but I looked at Brian and said, “Don’t worry, I will take him under my wing and make sure that he is okay.” The look of relief on Brian’s face was palpable. I walked over to Joseph and his parents and introduced myself. We had a brief but lively discussion about the trip and Joseph, during which time Joseph kept his somber face and answered questions with either a nod or a one-word response. And then, we were off, 40+ bicycles all with tall orange flags attached to rear carriers fluttering in the breeze. It was quite a sight.

The teachers spaced themselves between the kids and I made sure that Joseph was in front of me that entire first day of approximately 55 miles. It was, much to our relief, an uneventful day, which for us meant traffic control went well – it takes some amount of coordination to keep that many bicycles in a group when crossing city streets – there were only some very minor adjustments to make on the bikes – the group was able to stay together for the entire day of riding (this does not always happen) – campsite and group assignments went smoothly (the kids were grouped four to a campsite, two per tent). They were also responsible for gathering firewood for their sites and for cooking their own meals with food we provided for them. Yes, there were multiple opportunities for things to go wrong, and believe me when I tell you that they often did, just not this first day. We chose to take this as a good omen, it was!

Joseph cycled well and over the course of the day I was able to get him to talk to me in complete sentences. He was still somewhat shy, and this was especially true with the other kids, so I had a brief chat with his campsite mates – specifically chosen by Brian and his wife for their easy-going demeanor – and told them to include Joseph in everything they were doing and make sure that he felt as comfortable as possible given his uneasiness around them. I am very happy and proud to say that the three of them rose to the occasion and then some.

Over the next few days, we all began to see a slight crack in Joseph’s shyness, first with me, then with the other teachers, and finally with the kids. He opened up a bit more, joined in when the kids had free time to toss a football around or play soccer, and was definitely more outgoing with each new day. It always amazed me that after a grueling day of cycling the kids found the energy to run around and play, while the teachers just lay around with barely enough energy to get a water bottle to our lips! After several more days of hard riding, good weather, and buoyed spirits, we arrived in Ottawa where we were to spend two nights, before hitting the road again back to Montreal.

And, then it happened! The plan for our second and last night in Ottawa was to cook a meal for the whole group, rather than have each small group cook their own meals. The plan was also for the teachers to shop and cook this meal, and everyone knew this, kids included. On the morning of that day, just before a few of us were about to go shopping for the evening’s meal, Joseph came up to me and asked me if it would be possible for him to orchestrate the cooking of this group meal. It turns out he had already enlisted the help of his campsite mates, and he was sure he could get some of the other kids to pitch in. I was speechless – and for anyone who knows me this does not happen often…okay, never! Already knowing what the answer would be, I said that would be awesome but he would need to check with Brian first. He then came back and asked if he could accompany us to do the shopping. I asked him what he wanted to cook for everyone, and without hesitation he said: “Well, spaghetti of course.” Of course!

What unfolded that night was nothing short of miraculous. At around four o’clock, Joseph gathered those who offered to help directly with preparing the meal – this number had now swelled to 10 from the original three plus Joseph, with the other kids all pitching in with setting tables, trash disposal, and other mundane chores, all done with big wide grins on their faces. The teachers stood around watching this unfold. What was most amazing to us was not the kids all helping out, but watching this 13 year-old, who on the first day of the trip looked like he was afraid of his own shadow, barking out instructions to his sous chefs and making sure everything was being done to his satisfaction. When we were shopping, I asked Joseph if he wanted to by the sauce in jars to save time, and he looked at me and said: “If my family ever found out I made spaghetti with sauce from a jar, I would be in big trouble.” Yup, we had marinara sauce made from scratch at a campground! And it was beyond good. At the end of the meal, one kid stood up, raised his glass of juice, and said: “Here’s to Joseph.” Everyone stood with their glasses raised and toasted this kid, while the teachers tried to hide their misty eyes from the rest. We had just witnessed the most amazing transformation of a young boy…so amazing that 39 years later I still get goose bumps just thinking about it, let alone writing about it. However, the coda to this story is even better.

A few days later, we rolled back into the school parking lot to a great deal of fanfare and relief of the parents assembled. Some parent had managed to convince the local TV station that this trip was newsworthy, so there were cameras everywhere as we navigated our way to the back of the lot. Kids were running around excitedly reuniting with family and pets, all beaming with a sense of accomplishment. Off to the side, I noticed Joseph’s parents, and they looked worried. I went over to talk to them and they quickly asked me where Joseph was. I found him in the crowd, busily getting phone numbers from some of the kids and talking a mile-a-minute about the trip, The Dinner, and everything else. I pointed in that direction so his parents could see what I was seeing. Quite simply, they did not recognize him. Sure, he looked the same, nine days isn’t enough time to change someone’s appearance, but their son was shy no more, much to their delight. That is what I would call a transformation with a capital T!

Los Angeles, 2018

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