About 50 years ago, a boy spied a unicycle tossed to the curb and decided to roll it home. The boy's father wasn't pleased when he saw it. Its bearings were bent out of shape. Its pedals scraped the floor. But the father, being a good dad and somewhat mechanically inclined, set about repairing it for his son. The boy did not know then how it would inspire an entire school community.
• • •
The boy spent hours in the basement of his home practicing, 15 minutes at a time.
He'd balance on the seat, grab the low-hanging steel beams above him for stability and pedal himself from one side of the basement to the other.
By month's end, the boy had mastered the ride.
He was a unicyclist — and the only third-grader anyone knew who rode on one wheel.
• • •
Years passed and the boy became a teenager.
And the unicycle was less cool.
The boy enrolled in college, got a degree and became a teacher.
One day in the teachers' lounge at Leila Davis Elementary in Clearwater, he mentioned his unicycle riding.
Another teacher heard and told him he should ride for the kids.
So he did.
"Be good for a month during lunch," the teacher told his students, "and I will ride my unicycle for you."
So, the children were good and when the 6-foot-7 teacher climbed on the seat of his chrome unicycle — the same one he'd bought as a child — the kids cheered and laughed and smiled.
"They went NUTS over it," he recalls.
In 1996, a year after he was named principal at Oldsmar Elementary, Dave Schmitt started something.
He called it the unicycle club.
• • •
The children zip and wobble. They hold hands and laugh.
First-graders get pointers from fifth-graders how to keep steady and avoid falling down. About 25 kids are in the group now, but the club has gotten as large as 60.
Look up! Up!" Christina Schmitt, 9, (no relation) tells an unsteady 6-year-old as he holds her hand and pedals. His unicycle stands no higher than an adult's kneecap.
Little Ian Kirane nods and falls. Then he hoists his unicycle up again and grabs Christina's hand.
The lessons of unicycle club are simple: Play, practice, laugh and don't look down.
Kids pedal, fall and get cheered anyway. Sometimes, the club gets to perform on the school stage during lunch and the kids feel like celebrities.
Out here, no one's tapping on cellphones.
There's just big kids and little kids. Helmets and knee pads. Unicycles and Mr. Schmitt.
• • •
In 15 years, Schmitt's club has created a cross-generational community of one-wheeled enthusiasts.
Big kids graduate to bigger unicycles and donate their small ones back to the club. Children write messages to compete for the prizes.
Kylie Steele, 7, won one that way. "I would ride it every day," her essay promised.
Now she calls to her uncle for help. "Lean into it," Kyle Doege, 23, tells Kylie, as she teeters atop her saddle.
Doege also learned how to ride his unicycle on this blacktop when he was a second-grader.
Now a lanky engineering student at the University of South Florida, Doege still shows up every now and then to ride, to play, to chase, to tag, and now, to teach his niece.
Not far away, Amanda Fosbrook, 16, balances on her 20-inch wheel and stretches her hand out to hold her brother's. Back in the first grade, Amanda would practice for hours in the family driveway, circling upside down trash cans.
Today, she comes back to play with her brother, Rabb, 11, the third Fosbrook child to unicycle.
"Troy, don't fall! Don't fall! Don't fall!" kids cheer as Troy Broadbent, a 17-year-old, faces off with Doege, the last two standing in a turtle race. They idle back and forth, trying to be the last to reach the finish line.
Broadbent was a boy when he started riding, too. Now he's a senior at East Lake High and he helps coordinate the club's parade appearances and outings.
He joined as a first-grader, but it took him a year before he could ride without help. Now he uses his story to encourage kids who are struggling.
• • •
No one's sure what will become of the unicycle club next year. The principal Schmitt is retiring to North Georgia. Broadbent is going to University of Central Florida. And Doege, well, he has work and school.
Amanda treks down to St. Petersburg Collegiate High School and her brother is heading to middle school.
"I'm hoping that someone steps up," says Schmitt.
• • •
At the end of the hour, children put down their unicycles and gather before Schmitt, some still donning helmets of purple and blue and pink.
He tells them how good they're getting and how hard they're trying. He reminds them of their planned ride in the Safety Harbor Holiday parade, about the doughnut maneuver and the T-shirts they'll wear.
The kids ask their questions.
Yes, you can decorate your unicycle, he says. Yes, we have a job for you even if you don't know how to ride yet. "I'm proud of you guys," he says when it's over.
The children scatter to parents and cars and vans, pushing their unicycles home.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or [email protected]