Lessons from the Road

So I am at it again—driving with an inexperienced driver. Here’s the funny thing about driving with a new driver: When you get in the car, even if you know where you are going, you never really know how the drive will go. You might have a plan in your head when you embark on the journey, but when you get out of the car, you think, Well, that didn’t turn out the way I thought it would.

Take, for example, a drive we went on earlier this week. Unlike my older two children, this child is very anxious to be behind the wheel, and if we are going somewhere, he always asks if he can drive. So this week, we had to travel to the next town (a small city), and we had to get on the highway to get there. It was just past rush hour, and I knew a route that would skirt the main part of town and bring us to our destination without the worry of traffic, turns, and too many stoplights.

Well in advance of the exit ramp, I let the young driver know that the ramp was a sharp curve, and he would want to slow down. Way down. But the exit comes up quickly and there is traffic coming onto the highway that needs to be negotiated. As we careened around the turn, my son said, “Wow, that is a sharp curve!” But he was able to maintain control as he finally slowed to a better pace.

I took a couple deep breaths to calm my heart rate as he merged with the cars on the new road, and I said, “You’re going to want to get into the left lane.” I pointed ahead. “See that light? You’ll be turning left there.”

“Right there?” he asked, gesturing with a tilt of his head, as his hands were on the steering wheel.

“Yes,” I responded as we moved closer to the intersection that I was looking at. We remained two lanes away from the left-est lane. In my head, I knew we could go straight and still get to our destination, and I only briefly considered mentioning that by left lane, I meant all the way to the left. But I decided to let it slide.

We went straight through the light, and he asked where he was supposed to turn. “Back there,” I replied. “But you’re fine. We can get there this way.” In the end, we arrived at our destination safely and in plenty of time, and we got some unexpected experience navigating the city streets.

And I learned a valuable lesson, because learning is not exclusive to one person in any given teaching experience. I need to remember that even though—in my head, and with my years of experience—this driving thing is very straightforward, for a rookie navigator, the road system is a maze of unchartered territory. It’s always best to keep directions simple. Maybe we go a bit out of our way, but in doing so, we avoid the panic of directions given too swiftly and followed recklessly. It’s a process, this business of driving a car, and well… practice.

The point of driving hours is to practice rather than to reach a destination. Destination will be the next step. In the meantime, keep your hands on the wheel. Keep your seatbelt on. And (as Dad always said) watch out for the other guy.

Driving

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There is something about being out on the road with a brand new driver that imparts a thrill greater than any amusement park ride anyone could ever dream up.

As you barrel through town at speeds ranging anywhere from 2 to 72 miles an hour, you have absolutely no idea whether the car you are riding in will clip the mailbox on the side of the road, toppling it over, or veer into the center lane straight into the path of oncoming traffic. You have no idea if the car is going to come to a halt before it reaches the vehicle stopped at the red light just ahead of you, or… not.

In my state, there is no need to pass a test before taking the wheel. Children reach a magical age determined by a handful of stressed-out lawmakers at the end of a long day of deliberating on important issues, they grab their birth certificate, and hop in the driver’s seat. No permit necessary. And when they first take the wheel, the entire extent of their knowledge of the laws of the road is gleaned from years of sitting in the back of the mommy-van staring out the window. Truth be told, if you really think about it, it’s a frightening prospect.

And yet, this is my present reality. Each day, I drive my car to the high school in time to meet the students as they exit the school following theater practice. I dutifully move to the passenger seat to become a passive observer in the vehicle which I pay for and on which I cover all the expenses. (And to think, I once thought handing over a $300 pair of eyeglasses to a three year old was a big deal….)

As my daughter gets in, the first thing she does is move the seat three feet closer to the steering wheel and adjust all of the mirrors accordingly. Her older brother and I are close enough in size that I barely notice when he drives my car, so this is a novelty for me. The first morning after she was on the road, I had forgotten she was the most recent driver, and I hit my head on the door-frame trying to squeeze myself between the seat and the steering wheel. Now, I am a bit more astute about noticing the seat position before I attempt to get in.

I have been down this road before, but I had forgotten just how much my muscles tense and my blood pressure spikes when I am in the car with an inexperienced driver. In this situation, I am the adult; I am in control, and yet, I have no control whatsoever. I can scream all I want, but that doesn’t mean the car is going to stop.

Like childbirth, I had pushed the memory of the first-time driver deep into the recesses of my brain, and it was not until I was riding in my own car on the roads with child number two at the wheel when the memories, the physical reactions, the FEAR came flooding back. (I try to keep the fear to myself. At least until this blog post.)

Someone once told me that one of the great uncertainties of life is having a baby without finding out the gender before it is born. I beg to differ. One of the greatest uncertainties in life, if not the greatest uncertainty, is getting into the car with your teenager. You just never know how that is going to turn out. I’m hoping I’ll survive this one. And the next….