I swallow hard, trying to work up courage. My car sits in the garage and I take the passenger seat, feeling like I’m climbing onto an unsafe carnival ride. I look to my seventeen year-old son who’s driving and make sure my seat belt’s fastened. “Okay, let’s go,” I say, trying to sound chipper.
Patrick shoves the gearshift in reverse. The car jumps. Off we go, backing out too fast. The first “Slow down!” comes out of my mouth.
Three weeks ago Patrick received his Learner’s Permit. Although he’s not as bad as at the very beginning, I’m still ready for a nervous breakdown. A year ago I rejoiced when he didn’t show much interest. He was young and immature and I was happy to postpone his getting behind the wheel.
But then he grew taller and thinner and whiskers appeared on chin and cheeks. And one by one, his friends acquired that ultimate status symbol for high school boys – car keys hanging from the belt loop. One day Patrick announced he was ready to get his license.
Today we leave our driveway. Patrick pulls onto our windy Connecticut road. Already I’m on full alert. A jogger is coming up on the right. A car’s coming toward us on the left. The road’s narrow. We’ll all meet at the same time. Patrick’s going too fast. “Slow down,” I repeat like a mantra. “Slow down, SLOW down, slow DOWN…”
Finally we all get by each other. I take deep breaths. A few moments later we head down a steep hill when I notice Patrick’s foot on the gas. I stomp an imaginary brake, this time screaming, “SLOW DOWN!!!” We sail through a blessedly-empty intersection.
Patrick’s taking Driver’s Ed, but the instructors are maddeningly slow getting to the meat of this course—driving. Instead it’s classroom learning — how many car lengths you should be from the vehicle ahead, how far to park from a curb and whether to take u-turns in residential sections, important details, but things most kids will forget the moment they receive their license.
Going around a curve, Patrick gets too close to a stone wall and I flinch. He notices my nervousness and clears his throat. “Bob’s Mom let him drive her to Massachusetts last weekend.” I roll my eyes, thinking good for her. I already feel deflated knowing I’m the worst teacher in the world, which is ironic since I thought I’d be good.
I thought I’d be like my father who was calm and reassuring. And God knows he had his challenges. “Laurie, stop checking your hair in the rear view mirror,” he had to keep saying. My husband’s also a good teacher, but travels a lot. So this task, which requires confidence and steeliness is left to the most skittish.
We come to the main road with cars whizzing in each direction. I start cuing Patrick, but worry I’m confusing him. I think of that scene in “Gone with the Wind” when Rhett Butler covers the horse’s head as he and Scarlett escape Atlanta. “You’ll like this better if you don’t see anything,” he says to the frightened animal.
After making sure all is clear, I close my eyes, feeling the car pull out. In a second I open them and we’re on the main road.
We travel along but I’m a cauldron of worries. If Patrick moves too close to the yellow line, I picture us hurtling into oncoming traffic. If he moves too far to the right, I picture us wrapped around some tree.
I know I’m cuing too much, throwing too many directions at him – slow down, speed up, watch the mailbox, dog on the side, lady walking – but can’t help it. I need to feel in control, even though I’m not. I take a deep breath, seeing the weeks and months ahead like so many steep hills.
We arrive at the drug store where Patrick takes a few passes getting into one of the parking spaces. While he’s inside, I think of Bob’s calm, competent mother. She let her son drive on highways? I can barely handle a two-mile outing and I do that for only one reason.
Practice will make my son safer. In order to learn, he must do it again and again. And so must I.
That afternoon we make it home in one piece. And over the next few months, Patrick and I go out several times a week. I never relax. I never get good at this, but a strange thing starts to happen.
Either because of me or in spite of me, Patrick improves, not great, not perfect, but not bad either. And slowly I start to improve. My hands stop shaking when I hand him the keys. I don’t need an airsickness bag when he takes me to the coffee shop.
As we continue our outings, I notice something else. The more I try to control him, cue him when to pull out and slow down, the worse he does. The more I work to stay quiet, to let him use his own intuition, the more he trusts himself.
Three months pass and Patrick receives his license. That night we decide to celebrate by picking up pizza. Out of habit I have keys in hand, ready to go. “I’ll do it,” he says.
I look out the window. It’s October and will be dark soon. It’s rush hour. My son has never driven by himself. That’s when I look at his hopeful face and realize I’ve done my best. I’ve given him professional lessons, plus my own neurotic, angst-ridden instruction.
I hand them over and in that moment, realize I passed a test myself. Teaching my son never came easy. I never got good at it. We never made it to the Mass Turnpike, but maybe bravery’s relative. One woman’s no-brainer is another’s trial by fire. I watch with pride as Patrick takes the keys and attaches them to his belt loop.
(Published in “Connecticut Muse Magazine,” Spring 2013)
Have you had to teach a kid to drive? Did you survive? Comments are always welcome and if you feel inclined, please share. Thank you!