We Have Nothing to Fear but Teaching our Children to Drive

State Street Scribe

by Jeff Wing

One sunny afternoon in the deeply-felt 1970s, I broadsided a light pickup truck driven by a school acquaintance named Bud. I was driving home from work when Bud’s lil’ Japanese economy truck leaped spontaneously away from the curb and into a hurried u-turn which my grimacing Chevy Vega was fated to interrupt. The effect was an unwelcome but timely demonstration of a couple of Newton’s Laws; those boring little science class aphorisms one struggles to memorize for the unit test, but whose felt effects are unforgettable.

Because I had just left work I was dressed, to my sorrow, in the standard fast food worker’s uniform of that time; an industrial-brown shirt-and-trouser set with cruel Flying Nun lapels that nearly reached the shoulders, ostentatious pant cuffs for trapping falling McWaste and wildly overfed McBacteria, and that visor which burger flippers still have to wear, presumably so the patron equates all this caloric intake with a sunlit sporting event of some kind. When our vehicles sought to occupy the same coordinate, Bud’s and my respective masses collided in a burst of textbook inertia. Though it all happened in a quick, loud, metal-crushing instant, the accident played out in that surreal Einsteinian time dilation that stretches our worst calamities into terror-taffy.

Objects In Motion

In the super slow motion Crash Test Dummy footage of the accident I’ve replayed in my head over and over through the intervening years, at the moment of impact I jerk heavily forward against the restraining shoulder strap, my superfluous brown visor dreamily cartwheeling off my puffy hairdo, my lapels waving languidly in the brief storm of physics like flags in an Army recruitment video. Down on the floorboards a flood tide of sparkling crap lurches out from under the seats in a coherent fan of flotsam. Unidentifiable bits of dust and whatnot, yanked from every hidden corner of my passenger compartment, float forward through the charged air with ballistic determination. I just had time to raise my braking foot and make the alarmed “Home Alone” face before I plowed into the side of Bud’s Toyota pickup.

I still vividly remember the police car, the lights, and my own exulting in the Moment. An acne-riddled teen wallflower, I was already a blabbermouth observer, excited by everything and largely unaware that hollering one’s thoughts at an annoyed public was an express ticket to “The Room Where Nobody Else Is” – a place I later came to call Ice Station Jeffry. “I’m just glad I had my seat belt on!” I hollered giddily at the police guy, who in a long glance took in my clown suit and went on scribbling. My bright orange Chevy Vega was now a smoldering Platonic ideal: Automotive Ruin. It would be a while before I would have a car again. My second would be another Chevy Vega.

How To Sensibly Negotiate Turns While Daddy Blubbers

As Mike Douglas described so movingly in his song “The Man in My Little Girl’s Life” (which in my haunted memory he sang once a day on the baffling Mike Douglas Show), the sands of time pour unrelentingly through the hourglass. This bittersweet Life blossoms and fades like a time-lapse passionflower, or a Venus Fly Trap grasping hungrily at some awful-looking airborne bug. Which is to say, my own baby girl—who just yesterday was creeping along the floor with a pixie grin and button eyes, is now a willowy young woman with attitude, swagger, her own indecipherable lingo and fashion sense—and a Learner’s Permit from California’s damnable Department of Motor Vehicles. Because my ex-girlfriend (my wife) is a shameless and transparent coward, it has fallen to me to teach my little girl how to drive. Awww —She’s doing great! And the experience has turned my bald spot into a bald Area.

I did manage to forestall the scary “driving through neighborhood streets” portion of my baby’s training by spending some weeks with her tooling around in the parking lot of our neighborhood church. Where better to get closer to G*d as one prepares to join Him in the cloud city, or whatever? My main object, though, was to familiarize my eager new driver with the pitch and yaw of the rolling tennis court we call a car. Our 90s-era sedan is 60 feet long and painted in attention-getting gold; the sort of car a teenage girl dreams of, before waking up in a full-throated scream. This nimble little buggy has plush seating, a sunroof, generous trunk space, and the carbon footprint of a coal-fired battleship.

Yield, Sweetie. Yield!! YIELD!!! AAAAAYYAAAGGGHHHH!!!

By Church Parking Lot Day 63 my daughter was driving in a big circle like a champ! And she was growing impatient with my Drive in a Big Circle Instructions. These lil’ livewires want it all, and they want it right now! Ha ha! The kids love life! But I love it more, and I sweatily managed to put her off for another 20 days. Finally, it was truly time for my baby to get out there and plow through someone’s dining room wall in an explosive shower of masonry and splintered wood. Yes, my attitude needed adjusting. The challenge would be to imbue my baby with New Driver Confidence despite my own crippling terror of being a powerless passenger strapped into a rolling inertial bomb. Right?

Times have changed. When I was in High School we had an actual class period dedicated to Driver’s Education. There were lectures on road rules and “driving practice” in an adjacent trailer full of simulators. Somewhat incredibly, we occasionally spent class time watching a mandatory Highway Patrol ”hamburger movie”; actual post-crash footage of grisly high speed accidents meant to inspire sudden projectile vomiting all around the student seating chart. It worked like a bilious charm! It also prepared we driving students for the DMV’s jarring Organ Donor checkbox, a little-mentioned element of the big day, that momentous leap into the magic of adulthood. The message was mixed: “A wonderful life of travel, adventure, and independence awaits you, young person! You’re at the start of a marvelous new chapter! Say, can we harvest your organs if things don’t pan out?”

But at this writing, things have panned out. Before I could get out on the road as my daughter’s nervous passenger/trainer, she had to complete at least one session with a professional driver training outfit. When the young Driving Instructor showed up at our house in his dual-brake-equipped Prius and neatly trimmed Young Guy beard, he was so calm and cheery I figured he must be either a Jedi or a hologram. Or both, as sometimes happens. When my daughter and he returned two hours later, they both happily reported a successful first lesson.

The Downside of Traffic Flow

In the weeks since, my time as a wise driving counselor has likewise been plain sailing, with only occasional episodes of straight-arming the dashboard and keening like a porpoise when a brake light illuminates a half-mile ahead. I’m proud to say I have only torn the armrest off the passenger door four times in the course of our lessons, and have swooned into a full, Jenga-like collapse on exiting the car only twice. Oh, and I did wet myself once, blaming the sudden acrid smell on an overheated kaboopelator. I know my cars. It turns out teaching driving is as easy as driving itself. You just have to trust your kid to sally forth with all the calming wisdom you have brought to bear on your rearing of this nascent adult. Not that my ex-girlfriend and I have even a passing acquaintance with calming wisdom. But it’s all worked out better than we had a right to expect.

The hardest part of prepping your baby for her license? It’s that lingering glance over at your driver on the freeway when things are going well. She’s not trying to stand up anymore, not waving her chubby little arms and falling on her tiny butt again and again, always with that maddeningly adorable grin. It seems that miracle just transpired, like, last Tuesday or so? Today she is a young woman; beautiful, calm and sure, with a laugh like sudden music, a loving group of her own dear friends, and the happy energy of a sparkler. Scenery zips past as you briefly stare at this driver. Her eyes are fixed on the road, her hands are confidently grasping the wheel in the prescribed “10 and 2” positions—she is headed for the exit. And it’s coming right up.