You’d think it gets easier. Uh, uh. Not at all. Jessica’s the 8th, and final kid to teach to drive and officially has a learner’s permit.
“Daddy, can I drive through Houston?” she asks.
A parent hears that question and a swallow gets stuck between the windpipe and esophagus. The palms turn sweaty, the mouth dries, blood pressure rises and an immediate regret follows from drinking that big strawberry Coke from Sonic Happy Hour.
When a parent drives, we traverse bridges, pass texting drivers, narrowly miss 18 wheelers eeking into our lane, all without thought or care. But the “Can I drive?” question from a teenager with a learners permit changes everything!!
We pulled into a small town parking lot, AFTER Houston. Janet dives for the back seat insisting she doesn’t want to interfere with this special daddy/daughter time. Uh, huh. That’s pretty smart if you ask me! I’m sure it had nothing to do with an earlier conversation about how in Japan the highest ranked executive always sits in the back right seat because it’s the safest seat in the car!
That leaves me up front with Jessica and all 15 years of her riding, not driving, but riding experience. This wasn’t just “practice”. This was her first time to drive on a major freeway.
Whose crummy idea was it to have parent taught driver’s ed? There are people who make a living teaching driver’s ed. I don’t know how much they make, but it’s not enough! It’s like hiring yourself out as a professional crash dummy.
Jessica put her seat belt on, adjusted the steering wheel, then checked all the mirrors three times. She started the car, put it in drive and gave it a little gas. She quickly stopped, put it in reverse and backed out of the parking spot.
Unconsciously, as if preparing for battle, I move my fingers from my forehead down to abdomen and across both shoulders making a Catholic prayer hand gesture. I’m not Catholic, but it was reassuring!
If there’s anything to learn from teaching a teenager to drive, it’s that it makes your spiritual life better. Seriously! People pray when teaching a teenager to drive when they don’t pray any other time. You can’t help it!
“Dear Lord, have mercy on our wretched souls during this driver ‘training’! Protect us as we roll along at 70 miles an hour in this little death trap like we are a demolition derby car at the County Fair! Keep angels nearby, like nearby on the bumpers, close Lord, close! And please!! Lots and lots of angels!!”
A car approaches from the other direction causing the blood pressure to rise to stroke level. The silent prayer starts back up. Jessica looks and asks what I’m saying.
“Nothing. Keep your eyes on the road”, I answer.
She kept on, “Your lips were moving, but nothing was coming out!” She looks again. “Dad, are you sick?! You’re white as a ghost!”
Well, duh! I lie, “No, I’m fine. Just watch the road.”
The prayer turns to bargaining, “Oh, sweet Jesus! You know one day we wanna see you. We really, really do! But can we take a rain check on it being today?!”
Baptist preachers ought to start “Driver’s Ed Ministries”. They could grab random people for twenty minute car rides in the front seat with a student driver. After about, oh, let’s say 10 minutes, the preacher in the back seat could lean forward and yell, “If you died right now in a horrible car accident and there’s nothing left but mangled steel and broken glass, would you go to heaven? Or….(pause for effect)…..would youu, goo, toooo, helllllll?!”
Hey! If you don’t think about eternity when riding with a teenage student driver, then you eat nails for breakfast! I bet your tithe a preacher like that would increase baptisms five-fold!! Just an idea. Feel free to use it.
There’s a mailbox ahead on the right. I just know Jessica’s going to clip it doing 70 mph, and it’s on my side!
In a semi-calm, kinda firm voice I whimper, “Look out for the mailbox.”
“Yes sir……….What mail box?”
“The one right up there on the right Jessica! You have to look out for mailboxes! You never know when some kid will ride a bike out there to get their report card from the mailbox. Or some man fall over in the road from the shock of a high electric bill. Or some old lady wearing pajamas, hair rollers and panty hose curled up at her knees gets confused and walks right out in the road with her walker! You! You, Jessica! You have to be prepared for anything to happen! You’re the one driving! YOU have to anticipate these things!!”
“Yes sir, but I still don’t see a mailbox”, she says.
“Good grief! The black mailbox! Right there on the side of the road!”
From the security of the Japanese executive backseat, Janet pats my shoulder and says, “That’s 100 yards away, dear.”
I say, “I know! But you have to be prepared! And it’s down to a 60 miles per hour speed limit here Jessica!”
Jessica politely says, “Yes sir, but I’m going 60”.
I retort, “From here it looks like 65, not 60. Speed limit means that’s the fastest you CAN drive, not how fast you HAVE to drive.”
“Yes sir, Daddy” Jessica says.
Mrs. Kawasaki, the executive in the backseat, softly says, “She is going 60, Jeff.”
Maybe it would’ve been easier if I hadn’t tried to teach a Chinese college student to drive a few years back. His English was fair, at best, but his comprehension was really poor. I explained, very clearly I may add, that the accelerator made the car go, the brake made it stop. I said, “If I say stop, you hit the brake immediately and stop. Understand?”
I thought he got it. He didn’t, even after showing him several times how to push the brake to stop and the accelerator to go. He couldn’t say ‘accelerator’, so we called it the “goer”, you know, just to make it easier.
We were out in the boondocks about to circle an old, historic wooden church with a dirt parking lot and path around it. Whiplash set in when he first punched the gas. I started yelling stop. He hit the brakes, hard, like he was Fred Flintstone stopping a car.
We went over definitions again and the how to’s of driving. I’m not sure he heard any of it, or maybe he didn’t understand. He just sat there grinning ear to ear excited enough to wet his pants.
We began making long, slow circles to the left around the old church. He got better at braking, but every time he pushed the goer, it felt like G Forces from a rocket launch. Finally, instead of left, left, left, we were going to go right, right, right. Going left was bearable. Turning right, however, was nowhere in his toolbox of talents.
We were reviewing it all, again, but before I was through he said, “OioghKay! I go now!” He took off straight toward a 100 year old oak tree forty feet away.
I pleaded, “Ok. Turn right. Right! No! Stop. STOP!”
He panicked and hit the goer harder instead. Tree bark was coming into focus and I kept saying — OK, maybe not saying, maybe more like loudly saying — “Right! Right! RIGHT!”
It didn’t make any sense at the time, but he said, “Tank yuu!”
I reached over and jerked the steering wheel to the right and we barely missed the tree before swerving to miss another tree right after that one. He kept his foot on the goer like he was a NASCAR driver on steroids heading straight toward the old church.
“Stop!! Stop! Stop!!” I was begging now, thinking the airbags were about to deploy.
He finally slammed on the brakes stopping inches away from the HVAC unit. The sudden jerk threw us both forward into the dashboard.
“Why didn’t you turn right?!”, I snapped.
He looked confused and said, “Yuu tell me I wight. I say tank yuu!”
“Yes! Right! I told you right! Why didn’t you turn?” I asked.
He explained, “Yuu tell me wight. I tink good. I do no wong. I wight!”
“No! Not right, good right. Right, direction right!”
He got a little better with practice, but when we were almost through he said, “Yuu mowe nice than dwiving pwofessor in China!”
Grinning like a possum with hemorrhoids, he said, “I dwive one day wittle bit in China, but teacher cawl me dumb. He say bad words in Chinese. He get mad and make me get out of caw and walk home.”
He asked for more lessons to “dwive”, but I wouldn’t do it. Not a chance. I taught him how to shoot guns instead.
That day of Chinese induced terror crashed my memory banks as Jessica drove down the highway for the first time. Watching number eight drive, it hit me that my little girl was becoming a pretty good driver!
Jessica’s probably the last person I’ll ever teach to drive. On one hand, that’s great! It’s exciting to see your kids grow, mature and become self-sufficient. On the other hand, it’s sad, really sad!
Sometimes it seems like it will all drive you crazy, but then time goes by and one day you realize that this won’t happen again. This part of life will be done. Soon it will all be memories. How many people wish for redo’s of days gone by? How many nursing home residents sit looking out the window wishing they could go back in time? How many memories can an older person cherish in an uneventful day, marked only by the hourly chimes of a grandfather clock?
It’s strange that as time marches into the future, sometimes the roles reverse. Maybe one day the kids will all get together to talk about how shaky my driving has become because of advancing age? Maybe they will tell me I really don’t need to drive anymore for safety sake? I wonder, is that the opposite of teaching them how to drive? I don’t know. That’s the future. This is today.
Today, I watch my little girl. Jessica looks perfectly natural, all grown up. She drives with poise and responsible confidence. She’s careful, calm and relaxed, plus she has common sense and a good sense of direction to boot. Honestly, I’m impressed. She did well! Really well!
It could be Jessica is just a natural born driver. Nah! That’s not it. I’m pretty sure it’s more of my superb driver’s ed training skills than anything else. Probably. Maybe. Maybe not.