Biking and Learning

Photo credit Chelsea Kelso

It started as a selfish act to break up the monotony of his days, but Nazmi Kamal discovered deeper connections with his students by simply riding his bike.

Two photos of Nazmi Kamal, taking a selfie with a student and riding his bike. On top of the photos there are illustrations of bike treads.

It’s scary to ride my bike on bridges: I’m reminded why as large trucks whip by me on the Patullo Bridge, rumbling the surface underneath my two wheels. But I keep climbing, anticipating the priceless views from the peak of the bridge. 

In the first days of the pandemic, I was juggling care for my two toddlers while teaching online at home. I was struggling. It was a tough first couple of months, and in the longer days of late spring, I could not wait for my wife to come back home from work so I could get out of the house. I usually hopped on my bike and took off, destination unknown, returning after sunset. After a ride I felt better, but always had the itch for my next outing.  

One day, I read a headline about a high school teacher in the United States who ran a marathon-long route to visit his students during the lockdown. Truth be told, I didn’t even read the rest of the article as I had found my raison d’être for the weeks to come: I would visit my students by bike and get the exercise I desperately craved.

I asked students to sign up, and after lots of planning, I rode my bike from one visit to the next, carrying care packages, maps and a camera. I was pleased to ride down roads, in neighbourhoods and by beaches I never knew existed. I tried to visit fellow colleagues on the way, and one day, our divisional assistant joined me for a short ride. I loved having a destination where I knew a cheerful student was waiting for me.

What started as a possibly selfish act to do something outside the house turned into a journey of 56 brief yet unique and revealing encounters.

Portrait of Nazmi Kamal with bike tread animation

I visited Martha, an international student from Mexico. When I arrived, she was enjoying a book and a picnic set up in her backyard. We talked about the awkwardness of online learning, her barista job that started at 5 a.m. and her irregular sleep schedule. Before I left, she invited me to try out the trampoline — it was my first time on one and I loved it. She saw me off with a Gansito, a Twinkie-like Mexican treat. 

A selfie of Nazmi Kamal with a student, both wearing masks
Nazmi Kamal jumping on a trampoline
Selfie of Nazmi Kamal with a student, both wearing masks

Acts of Kindness

From the very beginning, I figured that a project like this could entice my hosts to donate some funds and pay it forward with an act of kindness. I have been so overwhelmed with the generosity: $1110, donated by 56 students and eight employees, have been donated in equal amounts to the Capilano University Student Emergency Fund and the BC Hospitality Foundation.

  • Total km travelled: 450
  • Longest one-day ride: 11 hours, 90 km
  • Total hours spent riding: 59
  • Total hours riding in the wrong direction: 4
  • Helmets lost mid-ride: 1
  • Wrong doors knocked on: 3
  • Dinners I showed up uninvited for: 3
  • Bridge crossings: 14
  • Puppies I met: 2
  • Family & housemates I met: 29

Another time, I caught the first ferry to visit Owen in Victoria. He was an incredible student, but on that day, I learned about the four jobs he juggled along his studies. He asked me about my interest and research in gastronomy. When I left, he recommended a stop for lunch on the way back to the ferry terminal.

In North Delta, I met with Lovepreet who handed me a hand-written note thanking me for my visit. She said her parents back in India were thrilled that I was going to visit her.

I spent 15 to 45 minutes with each person, discussing everything and anything that was unrelated to our class.

Our conversations felt personal — each meeting a moment to vent, share, talk or just stare at passing traffic.

In my Palestinian heritage, hospitality is sacred: I was humbled to be greeted with home-baked cookies and a cup of tea. I met family members, pets and roommates.

I felt the barriers between student and teacher disappearing and being replaced by a more universal connection of belonging.

I realized I had spent extraordinarily little time in the past getting to know my students personally during the term. How could I, with a finite number of minutes per class to cover what sometimes feels like an infinite amount of content?

I used to wonder why any student would miss an assignment, submit late or fail to show up to class.  

Riding my bike, I got my answers by seeing the barriers to learning that I simply could not see through a screen during a virtual class.

Students lived in crowded apartments. Some had unreliable Internet access, while others endured constant construction noise. Many students were completely isolated without their families and support systems nearby.

One student was expecting a baby, and I had no idea. Our class ended up throwing her a virtual baby shower and I delivered a gift card to her doorstep — by bike, of course.

Students were navigating layoffs, early morning shifts, isolation, financial worries — and here I was wondering why my students weren’t showing up nice and bright to my 8:30 a.m. sales class.

I find it ironic that I had never connected with them better than I have done so during the lockdown.

The pandemic might be remembered for many things, but its legacy to me is a reminder of the power of a humble bicycle, the beauty of adopting an idea and just going with it, and the impact my actions can have on students, family and community around me.

I plan on continuing my visits in the future as we transition back into the physical classroom and I know I will remember these precious encounters and friendships for years to come.  

Gif of bike tread moving down the page
Nazmi Kamal biking in a neighbourhood
Nazmi Kamal bikes through a neighbourhood in North Vancouver. Photo by Tae Hoon Kim.