By Mandy Mays
Driving is a sacred rite of passage, a privilege, but most important – it’s a chance to finally be liberated from the tyranny of parents! Ah, freedom. Who wouldn’t love the chance to leave behind the constraints of parental supervision? Learning to drive, however, is only a sacred rite of passage for teens. For parents, it would be more appropriate to call it a scary rite of passage.
Unfortunately for me, the year I started driving was the year my mother broke her decades-long habit of smoking, reducing her to a bundle of nerves in the car with me. Clutching her makeshift “pretend” cigarette of an empty Bic pen tube, she would cringe as she climbed into the passenger seat. Before I even pulled away from the curb, she would be puffing furiously on her substitute cigarette, clutching the door handle as if it would offer protection. Her nervous tic was punctuated by occasional gasps of horror as I motored down the street … both sides of the street.
I wasn’t that bad of a driver. But still, it was more than her nicotine-deprived body could endure. Needless to say, I was relieved when my mother announced that she had already taught two children to drive and would turn over my driving instruction to my father.
My father was not as nervous as my mother. However, we both had this strange idea that we were ourselves infallible, which led to some heated conversations on whether I had pulled up to the line or not. We would even get out of the car-in the middle of traffic-to prove our point. Our driving adventures came to an abrupt halt after one particularly precarious incident that resulted in many unhappy drivers behind me, horns beeping, and people cursing. After communicating with the other drivers in universally understood sign language, my father got back in the car and said, “Head home.” Side note: I really was right. Honest, my dad was wrong. That didn’t change the fact that he too had endured enough.
So my quest for freedom was temporarily brought to a standstill. Enter my brother, Nick. I thought it would be great to drive with him, my cool older brother who already possessed that coveted scrap of laminated paper proving his right to drive. Our first time together in the car, we had a bit of a falling out over a cat in the road. He wanted me to speed up; I thought making a pancake out of some child’s Fluffy would be cruel. Our ensuing argument was distracting enough that my hands temporarily left the wheel to wave around for emphasis … and our car made contact with the curb. Later, Nick declared to my parents, “It’s hopeless.”
I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to move to a city with an excellent subway system. New York? Washington? Perhaps memorizing bus routes would be a good idea. I had given up hope of ever attaining that elusive prize of a license. Until my brother Paul entered the picture. Paul was different. He was so calm, so steady and sure.
“Mandy, that is a red light. Do you see that light up there? The light above the intersection? It’s red. Okay. That was a red light. Next time we will stop at the red light.” His voice never deviated in tone, always calm and reassuring.
“Mandy, people normally drive on the right side of the road. No, the other right.”
Even when faced with imminent danger he remained a patient teacher. “That was an interesting move, Mandy. However, turning left on red is not legal. Not to mention that doing it in front of oncoming traffic is not a good idea.” How could I fail with an instructor like Paul?
It turned out that I could fail-twice actually-before passing my driver’s exam on the third attempt. But thanks to my big brother, Paul, I passed. He was the pillar of fortitude who never gave up on me.
I firmly resolved that one day, when I had children, I would be the patient instructor that Paul was. I would not scream in terror like my mother, or yell in frustration like Nick. There would be no anxious hyperventilating or whispering of prayers. No, I would be better than that. I would be just like Paul and this would result in my children becoming skilled drivers.
Ha! After the first few times my oldest child took the wheel, I stashed Dramamine in the glove compartment. The constant jerking every few feet was more than my head could take. Motion sickness ruled the car. Forward-BRAKE! Forward-SLAM! Every start and stop was punctuated by, “Sorry.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.”
“Sorry. The curb surprised me. Is there one of those everywhere?”
“Sorry. Uh-oh. Did I do that?” (Points at shopping cart hurling off from the impact.)
“Sorry. What’s that smell? Tires leave marks on the road? Really? Can we see?”
“Sorry. I forgot you have to put the car in park.”
A series of events prevented my daughter from obtaining her license quickly, which is how I ended up this summer with TWO drivers in training, my daughter and my son. This past week I concluded that the Dramamine was no longer serving its purpose, and moved on to anxiety medication instead.
Both children practiced their skills yesterday. Side note: cemeteries are excellent places to practice. Not only are there “roads” with very little traffic, there is less risk of harm to others. After all, you can’t kill a person who is already dead.
There we were, scooting along the roads in the cemetery, fluctuating between 2 and 30 miles per hour. (The speed limit was 10.) Maybe the anxiety medicine was too strong, because I had the brilliant idea that we should move our practice to actual streets. I gave excellent, precise instructions that my child ignored.
Pulling out of the cemetery, my son confidently sped up, immediately turning into oncoming traffic. I was a frozen statue. Should I yell BRAKES!”? No, we could NOT brake with traffic rushing toward us. Moving forward at the traffic would only escalate our certain doom. Reverse was not an option as we no longer were at the cemetery exit. I couldn’t even yell, “TURN RIGHT!” because there were cars on that side of the road. So I sat frozen in horror. Fortunately, my son quickly evaluated his options and chose the safest route out of danger: the sidewalk. As the shock wore off, I feebly managed to say, “Next time, we will drive on the right side of the road. No, the other right.”
Sadly, it was not the only sidewalk we frequented that day. Our explorations took us from sidewalks to the left side of the road to the grass edging of yards. At the end of the day, both children came to me and privately expressed their concerns about the other’s driving aptitude. One claimed to have a bruise across his chest from the seatbelt constantly locking with the brakes being slammed. I listened all the while mulling over an epiphany that I had while trapped in the vamoosing van of demolition. (“Sorry. Will those branches grow back?”)
My revelation was this: Maybe Paul wasn’t as calm as I had previously thought. Perhaps he was not the patient instructor I remembered. Maybe when Paul was in the car with me, he too was frozen in place, unable to use his vocal cords.
Paul, the paragon of driving, may need to brush up on his teaching skills. Because next year, my youngest child will join the ranks of his siblings in the golden age of learners permits. I suspect I will need to call in reinforcements.
Mandy Mays is the mother of three children, and teaches Junior High Language Arts. Currently, she and her daughter are working on a book chronicling the awesome year she was a student her class.