Kim Green/For NPR
Daniel Furbish works with a student during his class in Nashville, Tenn. Students learn to build bikes from donated parts.
Daniel Furbish works with a student during his class in Nashville, Tenn. Students learn to build bikes from donated parts. Kim Green/For NPR
In a cave-like basement bursting with rickety old bicycles, tires and churning middle-schoolers, Daniel Furbish barks orders.
Close-cropped beard, pen behind his ear, Furbish is an artist-turned-teacher from a military family — creative and disciplined. He started his Nashville, Tenn., bike-building workshop as a summer experiment. He thought, "What if I take donated bike parts and teach kids to put them together?"
These kids started with a frame and some greasy bicycle parts. Some picked a working bike from the pile. Furbish says when they found out they had to strip it down and start from zero, their disbelief was priceless.
"I love seeing the expression on their face when we tell them, 'OK, now take the whole thing apart.' And they're like, 'What?! This is gonna take forever!' " he says.
Furbish ignores all the groaning and sticks to the deal he's made with the kids: Build a bicycle, and it's yours. Over the course of six weeks, that's what they do.
An hour into the class, there is order from chaos: The kids are absorbed in threading chains over cogs.
Ninth-grader Lamarkus Shannon gets a thumbs-up from Furbish as he winds bike chain around gears. The two met in an after-school program that Furbish taught for kids who struggled in class. Lamarkus got in trouble a lot because he couldn't sit still and focus for hours at a time. But in smaller groups, doing hands-on work, he shined. He started writing poetry with a spoken word group. Today, he's just built himself a bicycle.
"It makes me feel good. Makes me feel different than a lot of other kids that have bikes because they just went out and bought one," he says. "Or some people even steal bikes or whatever. And I ... made my own bike from scratch."
Furbish lives for that burst of insight. A lot of these students are from tough neighborhoods. Some end up dropping out of school or turning to crime. Here, though, they see that it's actually fun to work hard, see a project through and learn something new about the world.
Furbish also teaches the kids how to take what they've built and use it to navigate their world. He briefs them about practicalities: It's illegal to ride on the sidewalk; storm drains can send you toppling over the handlebars.
He unfurls a cyclist's map of Nashville and points out bike lanes from the students' neighborhood to a park with miles of greenways. His point is that these bikes aren't just toys for doing wheelies. They're tools that can impart freedom to go places and explore.