Have you ever done something you were sure you’d never do? For 2011 Life Lessons Essay Contest winner Dorothy Fortenberry, that moment came when she faced down her worst childhood fears and, at long last, started pedaling.

By Dorothy Fortenberry
Updated March 03, 2011
Thayer Allyson Gowdy

The year I turned seven, I discovered the unpredictability of the universe. Six had been a pretty solid age—I was a frog in the class play, my hair grew long enough for barrettes—but after my seventh birthday, in December 1986, the unfair surprises started and kept on coming: the true identity of Santa Claus, a case of chicken pox, summer camp. Most important, No. 1: My father died. And No. 2: I stopped learning how to ride a bicycle.

No. 1 was impossibly unfair. As a result, No. 2 only made sense.

At the time of his death (to answer the most common questions: sudden; heart attack; not overweight; not a smoker; 42 years old; yes, yes, it was), my father and I had gotten about halfway through the standard riding lessons. I understood that my training wheels would not last forever, but we hadn’t yet graduated to the running-behind-and-holding-and-then-letting-go part. That was supposed to happen in the spring. A lot was supposed to happen.

As the winter thawed outside our Washington, D.C., home, my bike stayed in the hall closet, waiting for me or my mom to grab it again. Months passed while the two of us ate our way through the hams of consolation and wondered when life would ever feel normal again. When my first-grade class was given a writing project that began, “If I could have one wish…,” I completed the sentence with “I’d wish that Santa Claus was real.” This broke the hearts of about half my classmates, and while I didn’t mean to hurt them, I can’t say I felt too bad about it. The universe is unpredictable, folks. I was just telling the truth.

By the time we finally fetched the bicycle again, nearly a year later, I had grown about six inches and looked like a bear in the circus, perched on the seat. My mother and I soon moved to another part of the city, and my bike was given away. The hall closet in the new house held only hats, coats, and umbrellas.

Not that I wanted a bicycle. As a gangly, awkward kid with a deep fear of failure, I wasn’t in a big hurry to learn to ride. When friends’ fathers would offer to teach me, I’d always say, “No, that’s fine, you all go on ahead to the ice cream store. I brought a book.”

Plenty of people tried to instruct me: family friends, uncles, pretty much any middle-aged man in the vicinity when my ignorance became evident. But I declined. I was afraid of falling and afraid of looking stupid, and besides, I wasn’t that easily fooled. Teaching me to ride a bike was my dad’s job—various sitcoms, movies, and bank commercials affirmed this—and, sorry, well-meaning family friends and uncles and random middle-aged men, you weren’t my dad.

Once I was in high school, the whole thing mattered less. Communal bike outings waned, and I was rarely excluded from group events because I didn’t know how to ride. I was still excluded, mind you, but more for reasons like being a giant nerd, joining an after-school Wiccan club, or bangs.

None of this changed—until I was 19 and sitting in a courtyard in Avignon, France, and watching my hand go up as if by its own volition in response to a question that began, “Si vous voulez une bicyclette…” I had gone there to study French between my freshman and sophomore years of college, and I knew enough to understand what the nice lady was saying: Anyone who lived outside the city walls could borrow a bike for the summer to minimize the trek to campus. Did I want one? (Did I…what?)

To be clear, I didn’t raise my hand because I had suddenly become brave or tough. No, I simply hurt. I was suffering from extreme pain in my knees that year. The official name of the condition was chondromalacia patella, but what mattered to me was that my knees ached so badly that I couldn’t walk up stairs without weeping. The only thing the orthopedist said would help? Riding a bicycle. (The unpredictability of the universe, part II. Special heading: Irony.)

Here are some vocabulary words I learned in French that summer. No. 1: crème antiseptique, antibacterial ointment. No. 2: pansement, bandage. No. 3: genou, knee. I also got really good at an arm-waving, head-shaking gesture that translated as “I’m fine. No, really, please ignore the tears on my dirt-streaked face and the gravel embedded in my leg. I am totally peachy and do not need you or your moped, and I will be hopping back on this bicyclette any second now.” Then I would look down at the bandaged lumps in the middle of my legs and think grimly of how I had started teaching myself to ride a bike solely to reduce wear and tear on my knees. Irony indeed.

I kept at it. Yes, I was still awkward. Yes, I was still afraid of failure. But ultimately I became more frightened of not learning how to ride—and thus permanently damaging my knees. So every day after class I stuffed my books in my backpack and dragged out my heavy, rusty, gearless borrowed monster.

I fell, I bled—still, I didn’t give up. I kept riding, and falling, and riding again. And, after ripping several pairs of pants and becoming a regular at the pharmacy, I managed to get the hang of it. I completed my first turn. I hit a rock and stayed upright. I sped up. I slowed down. I was riding a bicycle.

I started riding it to school, past whizzing cars. I took it into the country. I rode alone every day for hours—not speaking French, not speaking English, just riding. Biking was supposed to function as physical therapy, but it turned into much more. My cycling inability had been my proof that life was unfair and that no amount of kindness could fix it. If my dad hadn’t died, I thought, I would know how to ride. It seemed perfectly logical to me, but it wasn’t true.

Because my dad died, a great many things were different: where my mother and I lived, what we talked about, how we functioned as a family. There were and are real losses and absences, and I mourn them, but there wasn’t actually any good reason I couldn’t ride a bike.

So I did it. And I fell in love with my bike—especially the speed and the freedom it conferred. I came up with this biking-while-smoking routine that felt terribly European—and which I now realize was terribly 19-year-old.

When I arrived back home, I had changed. My knees hurt less. The rest of me hurt less. I understood that the universe was still unpredictable, but not always in a bad way. For example, No. 1: Starting my sophomore year, I brought my aunt’s old bike to campus with me. I rode it to keep my knees healthy, and I eventually regained the ability to walk up stairs without excruciating pain. To this day, I ride regularly to yoga class and the grocery store. I even bike-commute to work—16 miles each way from East Los Angeles to Santa Monica.

Also, No. 2: Two weeks after telling a college friend that “all I want is to meet a boy with a bicycle,” I met one. On our first date, we rode to an arboretum. I fell off my bike. He bought crème antiseptique and pansements for me at CVS.

When I was seven, I learned how unfair life can be, but that summer in France taught me that life can contain unexpected and joyful surprises, too. Case in point: The boy with a bicycle and I just celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary.

I’ve also learned what I’m capable of overcoming. Now, when faced with various challenges—new jobs, a cross-country move, a new baby—I often think to myself, Remember, you taught yourself to ride a bicycle. How much harder can this be?

Dorothy Fortenberry, 31, of Los Angeles, emerged the winner of our third annual competition, claiming the $3,000 prize, round-trip tickets for two to New York City, a two-night hotel stay, Broadway tickets, and lunch with the editors of Real Simple. Fortenberry, a playwright who has never published an essay before, says she had wanted to write this story for years. “But I’m glad I waited,” she says. “It was a more honest piece than it would have been when I was 20.”